Describing outward emotions can often sound forced because people in the moment feeling those emotions aren't usually thinking, "I just want to stare deeply into his eyes." They're thinking about the color, the way the other person makes their heart race, how time seems to stop when their gazes meet. It's the effect of that deep gazing that's on their minds not the actual gazing part.
Let's say you're writing a situation that requires an emotional response. Instead of looking at the character who's about to become emotional in some way, try going inside her head and thinking about what that person would feel.
What physical symptoms would they experience?
Emotions trigger physical reactions. Racing heart, shaking, numb fingers, sweaty palms. Some reactions are involuntary like clenching a jaw or blushing.
- He looked at me, and all the right places tingled.
- What was that? The keys dropped from my trembling hands.
- She took a deep breath and clenched her hands. Remember, you promised you wouldn't hit him.
What thoughts would they think?
Emotions also trigger a mental response, which can convey both real and conflicting emotions. Maybe the character would silently urge the other person to act, or they'd have a moment of self-reflection.
- He held his breath. Don't you dare say what I think you're going to say.
- She watched the assassin lingering in the shadows. If he moves, she thought, I'll kill him.
- Lila squealed. OMG he really likes me! Maybe I shouldn't have sent that letter.
What response do they want the other person to see?
What a character feels can be different from what they want others to know they feel. Holding back tears, biting a lip, swallowing a reprimand. Or they may want to open up and let the feelings flow by gazing longingly, punching, or hugging.
- I waved a hand like it was nothing, but inside my stomach twisted.
- "Scared of you?" she scoffed, knuckles white against the pipe in her hand. "Nah."
- Mary just said yes! "Cool," he said, nodding his head. Screaming would come later.
What response do they want themselves to feel?
Sometimes we lie to ourselves. We try to convince ourselves we're not feeling what we are, or that it means something different than it does. Thoughts paired with conflicting reactions are quite possible, and can get across a complex emotional state.
- Her hands shook as she shoved the letter into her bag. It was fine, it was just a mistake.
- Perfume wafted out of his gym bag. Not her scent and every tense muscle knew it. She turned away. It didn't mean anything. Really.
- Billy glanced past her--no, at her, she was sure of it. "Did you see that? He looked at me! He does like me!"
What external sensations would they notice?
Heightened emotions can also heighten your senses, so perceptions might be stronger. Fear can induce a hyper-awareness, love can make things feel more sensual. Things that enhance a mood are often noticed first.
- Her touch burned across his skin.
- She tensed, every creak in floorboards above her as loud as a gunshot.
- The hot fudge sat like sludge in her mouth.
Putting it All Together
Not every emotion is going to require all of the above every single time, and mixing these up can help avoid emotional situations that feel forced or cheesy. Each character will also react differently to the same emotion, so understanding who that character is can guide you on how to describe how they feel.
Some people feel things more externally, refusing to think about things on an emotional level. Others think too much and try to deny reacting to them. And when one person reacts in a certain way, the other has a chance to also react, so emotions can build off one another--for good or for bad.
It's not always about how something looks, or what someone does. More often it's about what they feel or think that conveys the most emotion. Reinforce (or contradict) those feelings with what the character does, and you can craft some great emotional responses that are as rich as the emotions themselves.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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