Questionable: Emotional Shorthand

Suzanne said:

In my first draft, I’ve got characters grimacing, smirking, scowling, smiling, and laughing. In every subsequent pass, I work hard to go deeper into the character’s POV to figure out what he’s actually experiencing. But it’s hard because that leads to a lot of teeth grinding, gut clenching, and hands curling into fists (not literally, but you know what I mean). And that’s not good, right? I’ve been told not to do that–but isn’t that showing what they’re feeling viscerally? It’s overdone, for sure, but…? So how do we show/express a character’s emotions without being clichéd or…dumb? How do you do it differently for men and women?

The best thing anybody ever told me about emotion in fiction was from Ron Carlson’s class: “Emotion lives in the body.” Words lie, physical reactions don’t. So your instinct to show emotion physically is the right one. The mistake a lot of people (not necessarily you) make is to forget that description is like salt, it’s there to wake up the taste buds, not overwhelm the rest of the dish. Since we’re talking about emotional description, I’ll go back to the key to description: Not Every Detail, Just the Significant.

So you have two angry people. One of them curls his hands into fists. If that detail is in there just to show generic anger, it’s not effective and it’s even distracting because most people do not curl their hands into fists during an argument. But if this is a specific abusive husband, and the scene is told from the wife’s POV, then those incipient fists are Significant Detail. The key is always “What significance does this action have in this story with this character?” The abusive husband with the fists is easy; what does it mean when his toddler son throws a temper tantrum with his hands balled into fists? What does it mean when his wife curls her hands into fists, too, for the first time? A guy in barroom brawl using his fists to fight isn’t significant; the same guy using the same fist to punch down bread because he’s learned that kneading bread is a way to defuse his anger is interesting. If the detail is generic and not specific to that character in a way that illuminates him or her, it doesn’t belong.

Your “gut-clenching” is a different problem. People don’t choose to clench their guts, their bodies do that for them instinctively. That is, even if you’re unconscious of the fact that you’re clenching your fists and grinding your teeth, once you recognize that you’re doing those things, you can stop. The knots in your stomach, however, are still gonna be knots because that was an involuntary response, like blushing, sweating, swallowing because your throat tightens, going cold from fear or warm from shame, or fainting from shock. There are hundreds of things our bodies do that are out of our control, and they all betray emotion in some way. Some people get stomach cramps when they’re very upset, some people get headaches, some people’s chests hurt, some people lose their breath, and all of those people only have those reactions when something of great emotional significance happens because they’re all reactions that the body produces in reaction to perceived threats. That means an ordinary argument, even one that makes the character really angry, isn’t going to produce an over-the-top reaction. The key, again, always, is significance. If you establish that this character represses her emotions and as a result gets stomach cramps and because of that eats Tums like candy, then that “gut-wrenching” become part of the story: an enemy can steal her Tums and leave her in agony; you can show her home alone after a bad event that’s she’s handled, curled up on her bed and crying from the stomach pain; she can hit with a blow that’s so devastating that she throws up in front of people. It that case, “gut-wrenching” is significant. I’m asthmatic, so when I did an asthmatic heroine, her shortness of breath reaction to shock was significant because if she didn’t get to her inhaler she was going to pass out from lack of oxygen. So the key to instinctive physical reactions is “How is this specific to this character and what impact does this reaction at this time have on the story?”

So significant detail, but jeez, you just want to show the emotion this character is feeling using physical cues, you can’t set up every character as an asthmatic with stomach ulcers. Okay, what’s the scene detail? Is your gut-wrenched character at an expensive dinner with important people? Then maybe instead of gut-wrenched, the character starts to feel seventy bucks worth of prime rib begin to rebel within. That carries with it the added threat of throwing up at dinner, which has the symbolic danger of throwing a gift back in the faces of people the characters needs, none of which is on the page but which is packaged in the “seventy-bucks worth of prime rib.” That’s all about money. But maybe it isn’t about money, maybe she’s having dinner with her perfect sister, and Sis drops the bomb during dessert, and the stomach-churning becomes the potential of decorating Sis’s Armani with a projective-vomited hot fudge sundae. Bottom line: ask yourself the significance of this detail for this character in this scene. If there is none, if it’s just generic, then it’s not specific and probably not useful.

So here’s my recommendation: Write the first draft as always with no restrictions. Put in all the gut-wrenching and teeth-clenching you want. Then in later drafts go back and look at what’s going on in that scene and what kind of physical reaction would be likely for that character. If she’s abrasive and confrontational, maybe she steps forward or leans forward. If she’s retiring and hates confrontation, maybe she crosses her arms over her stomach and leans back or steps back. If she’s cautious, maybe she goes very still, alert to danger. If she hates showing emotion, maybe she looks away because she knows she’s about to cry. If she feels overwhelmed, maybe she takes a step back toward the door. If she’s had it with whoever is arguing with her, maybe she picks up her phone to end the conversation or picks up a crowbar to end it a different way. If anger is making her turn warm and red-faced, maybe that makes her even angrier, that she’s betraying herself. If fear is making her cold, maybe she pulls her sweater tighter around her. In the rewrite, you know who the character is, so you can write the reaction she’d have, not the generic.

Short version: Emotion lives in the body, but it is specific to the body it lives in. What you’re going for is specific emotional cues that support characterization and move plot.

17 thoughts on “Questionable: Emotional Shorthand

  1. And another one to print out. So good, thank you, Jenny.

    I’ve got characters grimacing, smirking, scowling, smiling, and laughing.
    I don’t have an exact quote, but I saw the director Mike Nichols interviewed and he had a comment about acting. When acting out emotion, it wasn’t always about putting the emotion on display. Most of us hide our emotions, at least the negative ones. So rather than seeing the character cry, we see the character trying not to cry. Similarly, they act like they are not angry, or not repulsed by one’s cooking, etc. So how does someone hide emotion, yet you see it anyway? Just a thought.

    1. One of the most common ways is to go still. We tend to move, shift on our feet, tilt our heads, whatever, when we’re relaxed. If you see someone go perfectly still, it’s because he or she is doing something: listening, concentrating on not moving or not showing an expression, waiting for what comes next. The other giveaway is subset of that: a fixed expression. If somebody’s smile is frozen in place, that’s not a smile.

  2. This is really great, Jenny. And extremely helpful, since I’m working on the third Baba Yaga book now, and trying to really dig deep and convey depths of emotion.

    Note to self: go back later and take out the clenched fists in the scene you just wrote.


  3. Thanks for asking the question, Suzanne. And thanks for the awesome answers, Jenny. I struggle with this too. My editor found seven “pounding heartbeats” in my last suspense. Ha ha. Got to find a better way to explain fear and the adrenalin rush.

  4. Character comes into play because people early on in life choose default responses to threat. Fighters might feel tension in their lower abdomen – the fight center, their body may take up a different stance, Fliers will start withdrawing, take a step back or whatever. Freezers might hunch their shoulders in an attempt to look smaller. People vary in what triggers these kinds of responses as well.

  5. Oh this is awesome. And very timely as I’m doing an emotion pass on my WIP. This reminds me that Alexandra Solokoff frequently advocates that writers take an acting class to better understand how to physically embody nuances of emotions in characters. I’m considering signing up!

  6. A most excellent post. Succinct & spot on. Thanks for sharing.

    Especially appreciate this: “…but it is specific to the body it lives in.”

    That point alone is gold. It’s where writers have the opportunity to go beyond generic detail and really bring out more specifics about the essence of a character. For me, think understanding the mind/body connection of my character is essential there but also find that knowing the body Chakras comes in handy too:)

  7. This is so great, Jenny! And the toddler clenching his fists–that really drives it home. Love that example. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking of emotion being specific to the body it lives in. I’m thinking of what a person in that moment might be feeling, which means I come up with generic and trite placeholders–like hearts pounding.

    I attended a workshop recently with Donald Maass, and he suggested taping your character’s mouth shut to see how he’d act to show us what he’s feeling. Externalize and show the emotion through his actions. He asked us to think about a small, undramatic, ordinary thing our character might have a feeling about. And then to tape his mouth shut, take away his writing implements, and show us how he feels about this thing through an action he takes. His point was that when a reader tells us the character is devastated, we don’t feel it. It’s redundant. We’ve just lived through it with him, so we get that he’d be devastated. But when he DOES something to show how he’s feeling–it can be poignant. It can make our heart hurt for him.

    I’m at the start of a new book, so I’m excited to see what I can do with this new perspective.

    You are awesome. Thank you so much!

  8. Often I feel that a writer underestimates the reader in her ability to feel what people in the novel are going through. I hate being told every emotion by spelling it out on the page. Rather, let me read between the lines. Maybe even guess. Just the way it’s in real life. There might be a dozen reasons why someone doesn’t talk to me all evening. So I’m looking for clues to find out. That’s how I’d like a novel to be.

  9. Found a this cool thing and thought of this conversation on argh: IBM’s Watson can take written texts and analyze it for personality traits, including cognitive and social characteristics.

    I’m not a writer, but I thought it was super cool and interesting personally, and I also thought it could be helpful for the authors who are trying to crack that emotional/personality shorthand code – you could plug in some of what you’ve written to see how Watson understands your character’s personality to gain some insight on how the character is coming across to an “unbiased” source.

    It would have to be based on 100 words (or more) that the character says in the story – not based on your description of the character, which I think would say more about you than about him/her – but I think it could work if it was all stuff that came out of the character’s mouth. My understanding is that it wouldn’t necessarily have to make sense or be in a context or specific order for Watson to analyze the spectrum of traits either. And in addition to listing traits, it also comes back with a nifty visualization.

    By the way, I plugged what I’ve written in this comment into the tool (up to this point), and Watson gave me the output: 91% Openness, 5% Conscientiousness, 18% Extraversion, 25% Agreeableness, 82% Emotional Range…. Plus a bunch of other things about me (including 80% susceptible to stress?! yikes! )

    Here’s the link so you can try it too:
    Hope you find it helpful (or at least fun!)


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