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Friday, November 8

You're So Emotional: Describing Emotions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A reader asked...
I was wondering if you could go into how you describe emotion in first person. In other words, how, without making your MC seem too self aware (unless this is their character) how you describe their physical response to things and then their emotional and mental response all staying in your MC's voice. I find that I'm running low on creativity for describing things like fear with sweat pouring down their face, or hands trembling, etc.
When describing emotions in first person, write them the same way as any other description. Put yourself in your POV's shoes and describe what they feel and see and do. Instead of saying "Bob was scared," you'd show the results and outward signs of that fear. As the above says, the pouring sweat, the shaking hands and whatnot. But as our commenter also noticed, is that there are only so many words to describe things, and it can get repetitious.

The trick is to not overuse them.

If the emotion needs to be carried over a long scene, try spacing out the physical details so the reader can see the POV is feeling X emotion, and then slip in little reminders as the scene unfolds that the emotion hasn't changed. If it's fear, the POV might start out with a racing heart, get the shakes later, wipe sweat from her brow after that. Avoid having her feel all three at once unless the scene calls for it. Like if she's having a stressful "holy cow" breakdown moment or you want that heavy does of emotion.

Also look at the more subtle ways to show fear. Folks act differently when they're scared, and their reactions and thoughts will reflect that fear. They might constantly look around, or jump at sounds, question everyone they see and worry they're coming after them. Whatever fits your POV's mindset at that moment. She might grab a weapon and hold it tight, or put her back to a wall. She might pull her hair forward and hide behind it so none can see her face.

She might also think about the stakes or what she has to lose. Worrying about being thrown in jail can show fear just as well as shaky hands. She might even talk to herself. My protagonist Nya does this when I want an emotion to be right there on the surface. I'll write her urgent thoughts in first person italics for emphasis: Don't see me, please don't see me.

Mixing all of these elements helps space out the emotional details so you're not heaping them on the reader at once. Readers are smart, and they can figure out an emotion when they see it. Plus, if you save some details, then it gives you the freedom to do a little more if the emotions get stronger later.

If the emotion gets stronger it's usually because the stakes have gone up in some way. This is a great time to use internalization or even dialog to show what the POV is thinking about. Make that emotion personal to her and not just an external feeling, and that'll help tweak those emotional stakes as well as the external stakes.

The second part of the question asks how to show emotions without making the MC seem too self aware. That's much easier to do, actually, because as long as you don't write her noticing she's scared or reflecting on her emotions, she just feels them.

For example, here's a POV who knows exactly what she's feeling and why:
I wiped the sweat from my brow, fear from my narrow escape coursing through my veins.
Aside from being a bad sentence, the POV probably isn't going to be thinking about what's coursing through her veins or why it's doing it. People just don't think about themselves in this fashion. They don't narrate their own life. It would be more like...
Sweat dripped into my eyes and I wiped my face on my shirt. I got away. I can't believe I got away. I stumbled to a bench and sat down, my trembling legs barely getting me there.
Here she notices how she feels, what she's thinking, how her body is reacting. It's looking outward from her skin, not inward at her skin. Don't explain why, but give enough clues so the reader can easily surmise the why. "Oh, she must be scared."

A red flag here are cliches and word packages. (a word package is a combination of words commonly used, but haven't fallen to cliche status. Like "abject poverty" "general consensus" and "sweat from my brow"). We see them so often they slip into the text without us even noticing. They're placeholder words, relying on a cultural understanding of the phrase and not actually showing of the meaning behind that phrase, so it feels like it's describing an emotion when it's really not.

Although the question specifies first person, these tips apply to both first and third person POVs. Just like show don't tell, if you can avoid explaining why to a reader, and just show the results of that why, you'll paint a picture they can understand that puts them right in the action. Let the reader figure out why by what they see on the page.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
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Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I'll admit, I have a tendency to do this (and I don't mean the great examples you've given to do it RIGHT). Thanks for giving me a different way to look at it and fix the problem.

  2. Thanks for the great tips. It is so hard not to sound cliche or overuse phrases when describing feelings, like fear. Spacing them out like you suggested to not overuse them is a great idea.

  3. Alex Cole4:20 PM EDT

    Despite her many other glaring inadequacies, Charlaine Harris isn't too bad at doing POV. Sometimes she gets really bone-headed about it, but most of the time it's pretty well done. I recommend her Sookie Stackhouse series for good examples of how to do POV well (and examples of how to do it poorly). Her 1st 3 books are pretty shoddily written, but the rest are decent (book 10 seems to regress a bit in her skill level).

  4. I like your "placeholder" words. I hadn't thought of it quite like that before.

  5. Great post. Thanks so much for this information!


  6. Great post. These are some of the scenes I enjoy best - where I can really get to grips with recreating the experience for the reader. The key, as you say, is living in the scene vividly. I'm tweeting this.

  7. I love your definition of word package. I usually refer to those as cliche'-ish. ;-)

  8. Anonymous1:59 AM EST

    I found your advice to spread out the reaction, and hold a bit back to stretch it out, very helpful. I first struggled to remember to put it in, then I found I was overdoing it. This is just what I needed. Thank you!

  9. Dirtywhitecandy, thanks! I have a few voracious reader friends who aren't writers. No nothing of craft. I LOVE listening to the talk about the books they like, because they talk about the emotions and the characters. They don't care about the things writers care about. But they see the effects!

    Sue, thanks! I read that somewhere years and years ago. Wish I remember who said it :)

    Macswriter, glad I could help. The same technique works for description, too.

  10. Thanks for the great tips.

  11. Your advice is always the best, most helpful, and clearest explained of any blog on the net. Love it!

    1. Thanks so much! I do try. Glad it's working.