Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the importance of Pacing and Tension. This week, we’re looking at emotion.
I don’t know about you, but this topic brings out a lot of emotion because it is so closely tied to the phrase writers love to hate: show don’t tell. But, before we can show emotion, we need to discuss where it is needed.
Have you ever read a scene in a book that made you feel something – terrified, joyful, helpless – but the character didn’t show any emotion? How did that make you feel? Emotionless scenes leave me feeling empty. Cheated. They remind me I’m not really part of the story. I’m just a reader.
That doesn’t mean every scene needs heart-racing, sweaty hands, and lip-quivering. In fact, too much of that can make the story and characters seem unrealistic. What they do need are realistic responses to events.
When writing, look at each scene. Imagine you are the character (and by this I mean all the characters. Even secondary players have feelings). Close your eyes if you want, dress the part if it helps. Put yourself in the specific event you are writing about. What are you feeling? How strong is it? If you felt something, your characters should too. After all, they are people just like us.
Now that we have a way to identify where emotion is needed, we can move to the more difficult part of writing: the dreaded show don’t tell. A good place to start is with the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book catalogues the physical responses, mental responses, and sensations associated with each of a broad list of emotions. While most people and characters exhibit specific habits when excited, frightened, or anxious, too many “my heart raced as she walked into the room” can be predictable and boring. Instead of just telling us the character’s palms are sweaty, try showing the character wiping her hands on her skirt or shying away from shaking hands with someone, hiding those sweaty palms behind her back. Show her wiggling an eyebrow because she’s in a cold sweat that’s tickling her as it drips down her face. It’s OK to do some physical cues–face getting hot, skin prickling, electricity running up the back of her legs–but don’t only do that.
There are many ways to write emotion and all are acceptable, within reason. My suggestion is to mix it up.
Here is a great example of using multiple techniques to convey emotion in a single scene, from Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star.
“I knew it was a big mistake as soon as I said it. His whole face turned red–cheeks, nose, the tips of his ears–the whole thing. He was practically aglow. His eyes darted sideways to where his new friends were watching us like we were on TV.
Why don’t you get some friends of your own and stop following me around like a baby?” he said instead.
He should’ve just hit me.
He grabbed his bike out of the dirt and puffed himself up with so much angry air I thought he’d burst, and I’d have to tell Mom that her older and more perfect son exploded.
“My name is Charles,” he said to those boys, daring them to say another word. “Are you coming or what?” He didn’t wait for them, didn’t look back to see if they were coming.”
This is such a quick scene, but conveys so much information about the relationship between the main character and his older brother, and conveys character emotion in a gut-punching way.
State the emotion – Yoon names Charles’ anger, but in a fresh way–“puffed himself up with so much angry air.” Remember, the reader wants to feel the excitement, not be told about it.
Show through dialogue – Voicey dialog can make a character come to life, but make sure it’s not the only way you’re showing emotion, and that you’re not telling us (“I’m so excited!”) but showing us. Look at the way Yoon reinforces the anger in this scene with dialog. Charles calls his brother a baby, but also uses short, choppy bits of dialog at the end of the scene, which reinforces his anger–“Are you coming or what?”
Descriptive phrases – for example, similes and metaphors. Here, Yoon uses some great description of Charles’ face to describe his anger. He turns red, which could be cliche, but then she freshens it by adding the tips of his ears, and the phrase “he’s practically aglow.” Later in the scene, as his anger escalates, he goes from “aglow” to downright explosive. So the imagery builds as the emotion of the scene does.
Hope your toolbox is now filled with more tips for writing emotion. Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at big picture fixes!
HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.
JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.