You’ve probably heard that you are not supposed to tell about emotion, but that you are supposed to show emotion. If your writing contains a line like the following, it is telling emotion, not showing emotion.

“I was so surprised.”

The above sentence is obviously telling. This sentence stands out because it is passive voice as well as telling about emotion. Other sentences that are telling about emotion aren’t as easy to identify.

“Though terrified, he continued forward.”

This sentence is active voice, and the emotion is in a clause, so it doesn’t stand out as telling. Unfortunately it is.

So how can we fix this? The fix is easy. Paint the emotion.

Painting the Emotion

“I was so surprised.”

Here are the steps to paint this emotion.

  1. Identify which character is feeling the emotion as well as the location, situation, etc…
  2. Think about your character. Imagine the characters body language based on the initial reaction to their emotion. Think of his/her face, hands, body, etc…
  3. Does the emotion make the character perform any actions (don’t think body language, but bigger actions, such as running away scared, punching someone angry, etc…
  4. Identify the cause of the emotion.
  5. Does the cause of the emotion make the character react? If I’m surprised because an evil wizard threw a fireball at me, I better do more than just show subtle body language.
  6. Does the cause of the emotion actually cause a primary emotion and some secondary emotions? Characters are not shallow beings that feel only one thing at one time.
  7. How does this affect any of the character senses?
  8. Rewrite the sentence by telling about the characters body language and actions.

So let’s go through these steps.

  1. Character = “I” or POV character. Maybe he is in the park at night.
  2. So let’s say our character’s eyes widen when he is surprised.
  3. Surprise does not normally cause other movement.
  4. The cause of the surprise in this case is a fireball.
  5. I would say he better dodge it or die or get burned.
  6. I think there is also elements of fear, excitement.
  7. The character may feel heat. He may swear. He may smell something burn. He may hear the fireball pass by or something.
  8. Here is the rewrite:

“My eyes widened as he threw a fireball at me. I jumped to the side as the fireball burned by me. I rolled and came to a stop behind a tree. I could smell the burnt hair on my right arm and hear my suddenly fast heart beat. Strange my arm would shiver so soon after being burnt.”

I am not going to say that I just wrote an amazing paragraph or anything, but I will claim I showed emotion instead of telling about emotion. Do you see the difference?

I used my steps to paint emotion. I actually painted a few emotions. “My eyes widened” is not a subtle way to show that a character is surprised, however, it does subtly imply the use of sight. The character felt the heat of the fireball as it passed by, using touch, another of his/her senses. The faster heart beat is a result of possibly both fear and excitement, secondary emotions. I heard the heartbeat, using hearing. I didn’t just say that the hair burnt, I smelled it, making the character use a fourth of his five senses, leaving on taste out. I also used some contradiction to show increased fear for his life by having the character shiver, despite having just been burnt.

Consistency

How does using a consistent paint brush apply to novel writing?

Well, it could get weird if in one scene a character shows surprise by widening his/her eyes but in another he/she drops his jaw and in yet another he/she raises one eyebrow. While this may actually be what would happen in real life, it might hurt the character in your story by making the character inconsistent and hard to identify with. It might make the emotions less obvious and the reader won’t detect the emotions correctly.

So lets add one more step to our list.

  1. Document how the character shows emotion and next time he shows the same emotion, use a similar reaction.

So it goes without saying that you need a character profile and this information belongs in the character profile. I am not saying to copy and paste the same line every time the character is surprised. That could get boring.

“His eyes widened.”

Hopefully, you understand how every situation is different even if the same primary emotion is felt, because there are different sub-emotions, different scenes, different causes for the emotions, etc. These differences will lead to unique writing even though the primary reaction is widened eyes.

I often show and tell when I first put an emotion in my novel. For example, if the paragraph I wrote was depicting that the character was surprised and it was the first time I put this in my novel, I might indicate that the reaction meant surprise.

“My eyes widened in surprise as he threw a fireball at me. I jumped to the side as the fireball burned by me. I rolled and came to a stop behind a tree. I could smell the burnt hair on my right arm and hear my suddenly fast heart beat. Strange my arm would shiver so soon after being burnt.”

Then for the rest of the novel, I can consistently use a variant of the same body language because the reader will remember, even if only subconsciously what emotion that body language means indicates.

Don’t forget all nine steps. Feel free to add or alter the steps if you feel it helps you as this is an art, not a science.

  1. Identify which character is feeling the emotion as well as the location, situation, etc…
  2. Think about your character. Imagine the characters body language based on the initial reaction to their emotion. Think of his/her face, hands, body, etc…
  3. Does the emotion make the character perform any actions (don’t think body language, but bigger actions, such as running away scared, punching someone angry, etc…
  4. Identify the cause of the emotion.
  5. Does the cause of the emotion make the character react? If I’m surprised because an evil wizard threw a fireball at me, I better do more than just show subtle body language.
  6. Does the cause of the emotion actually cause a primary emotion and some secondary emotions? Characters are not shallow beings that feel only one thing at one time.
  7. How does this affect any of the character senses?
  8. Rewrite the sentence by telling about the characters body language and actions.
  9. Document how the character shows emotion and next time he shows the same emotion, use a similar reaction.

 

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