Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Do You Get My Meaning? Providing Emotional Clarity in Your Writing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Emotions don't always come through in our writing, especially during that first draft. Here's an updated look at making our scenes emotionally clear.

There's a lot of writing that happens in our heads and off the page--we brainstorm, we outline, we talk it through with friends, we think about it as we go about our day. All of these writing moments help us understand a scene and what we want to have happen in that scene, but it doesn't always make it to the page the way we want it to.

This happens quite often with the emotions our character feel.

We might have characters feel something or react to something in a scene, and why they do it is very clear in our minds. But those reasons aren't shown in the surrounding text, so for the reader, those actions aren't so clear. Here's an example from my third novel, Darkfall:
"I'm sure Jeatar can find someone to fill in for you." He glanced at Jeatar, who paused and looked at me as if unsure whether or not to agree to that.
I bristled. "There is no one to fill in for me. His people are spread thin enough as it is."
The "I bristled" is what inspired this article, because I could see one of my beta readers marking that and asking, "Why is she upset?" There's nothing in the scene that shows why Nya finds this suggestion annoying. She has some issues with the person saying it, but not enough to warrant her reaction based solely on that. Nya's reasons for being upset by this aren't coming through. "I bristled" just isn't enough to carry the emotion behind her reaction if you don't already know why she's upset.

What this paragraph needed was more emotional clarity from Nya that showed why she bristled. So I added:
I bristled. I liked helping out. At least I was doing something useful and not just waiting for news. "There is no one to fill in for me. His people are spread thin enough as it is. If I'm not there everyone else has to work harder, and that's not fair"
Now the bristling makes more sense. She's being asked to stop doing something she feels is valuable, that she wants to do, even needs to do, and avoiding that something also affects her sense of fairness.

(Here's more on conveying emotions in our writing)

The Value of "Emotional Reaction" Words

One of my rough draft tricks is to use "emotional reaction" placeholders, such as "I frowned," "I smiled," "I groaned," "I shivered," etc. They're handy and short phrases that capture the emotion of a moment without slowing down my writing momentum.

Some days I'm in the mood to "get emotional" and  I flesh out those areas as I write, but if I'm eager to get it down and move on, I skip the internalization. I know these placeholder phrases need to be developed later, and I always do a search for them on the next drafting pass. Once in a while the short phrase is all that's needed int he end, but usually, the phrase needs more internalization to fully understand where the protagonist is feeling.

Does Your Scene Have Emotional Clarity?

Spotting emotionally weak areas in our writing can be tough, since we know what everyone is feeling and why. Beta readers are particularly helpful here, but if you don't have one or have time to get a critique, you can do it yourself.

Look through your story for emotional reaction words, especially if you've gotten feedback with questions about why a character felt or did something. Look for those two-word sentences. I smiled, he groaned, she frowned, I bristled, she chilled, he shivered, I jumped, he twitched, she gasped, etc. Next, ask:
  • Is it clear why the character is having this reaction from what's in the text?
  • Would a little internalization (or dialogue) help clarify what the protagonist is feeling?
Usually, clarifying the emotion only takes a line or two, sometimes even just a few words. Anything requiring more than that most like was fleshed our more during the drafting stage, since odds are that was a strong moment in the story and you dug a little deeper emotionally.

(Here's more on writing with emotional layers)

Are You Over-Describing Your Emotions?

Sometimes "emotional reaction" words can be deleted once you've fleshed out a section. The description or internalization makes it clear what the character is feeling, so adding "I fumed" becomes redundant. You might ask:

Is the emotion clear if I took out that I-verb phrase?

Maybe there's a stronger way to show the same feeling. "I smiled" is pretty generic, but your character might have a trait that shows her happiness that's much more her.She might think about how happy she is and smiling is just assumed.

And of course, sometimes the I-verb phrase is exactly right for the paragraph. Adding more would bog down the scene and maybe even add some redundancy.

(Here's more on the importance of matching actions to feelings)

There are no hard and fast rules here, but this is one of those little tricks that can help you pinpoint areas that might need some descriptive tweaks.

Do you use "emotional reaction" placeholder words? How do you handle creating emotional clarity? 
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
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

*Originally published November 2010. 


  1. Great post! I use the placeholder technique too. :)

    One thing that we have to be careful with is the showing & then telling angle, especially with emotions. For example, there are many cases where at first it seems like it's all right to name an emotion. I sagged with relief. I shivered in fear. But, in 99% of the cases where this occurs, the 'naming' of an emotion is simply a cheat--a way to tell the reader what the character is feeling instead of taking the time to show through stronger body language, dialogue and clarifying thoughts.

    So when I look for placeholders or critique for someone, I also keep an eye out for when an emotion is named and strengthen these sections too.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  2. Ugg. I'm struggling with this right now as I revise my WIP for the umpteenth time. This is helpful and it's good to know I'm not the only one who runs into this!

  3. Good post and instructive example >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  4. This is timely and great-- I'm working with a scene this week in my WIP that has this very problem.

    One other thing to think about -- the scene in a broader sense. For example, I have a whole scene using humor to explain something, but I think the humor is drowning out the point of the scene. I added some character explanation as you show above, but it didn't really show the point of the entire scene in relation to the story as a whole.

  5. another great post! I'm going to watch for this as I prepare to tackle another round of revisions.

  6. During my college workshops, I'd always been told to show and not tell--which, of course, everyone advocates. But I think I took that advice to a fault--I had a crit partner tell me she absolutely DID NOT LIKE Mattie in the first 50 or so pages. I was completely baffled--sure, she flies off the handle a bit quick, but it's obvious she means well...isn't it?

    Well, we talked about it, and I explained where Mattie was coming from during the parts she'd pointed out. And she totally understood and sympathized with Mattie--but she told me it wasn't coming across on the page that way at all.

    This internalization that you're talking about was the thing that fixed it--once I had Mattie give a little snippet of WHY and HOW she was reacting to things, it gave those scenes--like you say--emotional clarity.

    Again, a fantastic post. And it just goes to show that SHOWING, while the "preferable" tactic, is not always the way to go.

  7. Thanks! That was just the tip I needed right now.

  8. Wow. This is probably one of those posts that will revolutionize the way I write. Great job, as usual.

  9. Angela: Absolutely, and a great reminder. (I think I have a post on that somewhere, too) With-verb and in-verb are two red flags for telling, or even for a POV shift. Hmm...maybe it's time for a red-flag round-up post! Thanks for the idea :)

    Bluestocking: I've been writing my whole life, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that no matter what you're struggling with, you're not alone. There are inherent problems in writing and everyone, no matter what level they're at, runs into them. Hang in there!

    Cold As Heaven: Thanks!

    Sierra: That's happened to me, too, especially with humor. I sometimes have funny things happen in a particularly dark moment, and that makes the moment feel lighter or not as serious. You might try stepping back some and looking at what you want to accomplish. Your "point of the scene" comment makes me suspect it might be a more macro or structure issue. The scene might be trying to do something plot-related but the characters aren't with you on that, so they're not driving the story. Perhaps find someone in the scene with a goal that illustrates the point, and let them show it through their actions. (did that make sense?)

    Elle: Thanks! I've certainly found it helpful myself.

    Shayda: Great story and a perfect example! Telling gets a bad rap, but as long as it's the character doing the telling (so it stays in their voice) it usually works just fine. And is necessary from time to time!

    Ben: Most welcome, happy to help :)

    Jane: That's awesome, thanks! I love helping folks find those light bulb moments :)

  10. Love this tip, Janice. Thanks!

  11. I'm usually so appalled when I write those shortcuts without context that I stall out. Even thinking of them as mere placeholders that I WILL improve is kind of freeing. Thanks!

  12. Vonna: Most welcome!

    Clare2e: That's what's great about a zero or first draft. It's about getting the story down, not "writing pretty."

  13. Perfect! Just what I needed to hear for a scene with an emotional turning point that I was having a hard time ferreting out. :)

  14. Susan: Awesome, glad I could help.

  15. I think a lot of writers struggle with this. I see this so often.

    While I struggle with other things, this isn't one of them. I love to write these kinds of inner monologues/dialogues. I think its so fun to get inside a characters head. Great post!

  16. Febe, same here, which is probably why I love first person so much. Pretty much everything is internal!