Wednesday, January 23, 2019

5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel

emotions, crafting characters, creating emotion in a scene
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Emotions are critical in most novels, but writing them can sometimes be a challenge.  

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.

1. 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.
(Here's more on Alternative Ways to Describe Character Reactions)

2. What thoughts would they think?

emotions, crafting characters, creating emotion in a sceneEmotions 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.
(Here's more on Infusing Emotion into Fiction) 

3. What response do they want the other person to see?

emotions, crafting characters, creating emotion in a scene
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.
(Here's more on Providing Emotional Clarity in Your Writing) 

4. What response do they want themselves to feel?

emotions, crafting characters, creating emotion in a scene
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!"
(Here's more on the Emotional Core of Your Character)

5. 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.
(Here's more on Writing Emotionally Strong Characters) 

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. 

How do you handle emotions in your novel?

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

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. Brillant post as always, Janice. I've probably learnt more about writing from you than I have from any other source. :D

  2. This is great. I'm having that same issue right now -- staring into each other's eyes.

    Thanks for this.

  3. Lovely post. Thank you. Sometimes I think writing love between people who aren't the main characters is easier, because you CAN just go with `they were still staring at each other. It was crazy' or something.

  4. Great post as usual. I also struggle with finding unique ways of expressing physical reactions.

  5. *chuckles* This post made me go back and look at a WiP that I think is almost done. It looks like the scenes betas have raved the most about have used these techniques. This also explains why some scenes have struck me as "flat". Good stuff! :D

    These things are a lot of fun with unreliable narrators. Contradicting actions and thoughts produces some fascinating reads.

    One book I've read, the FMC was thinking about how a particular guy hates her as he was presumably harassing her; but any reader who knows anything about guys can tell that he's actually teasing her fondly.

    1. I like your point, Carradee, about unreliable narrators.

  6. Thanks Janice, I'm the one who posted that question and what I'm understanding now is you've got to know your character through and through to get emotions right. You're one smart (and generous) cookie. Liz. (don't know how to write my name in title cos I don't know what a URL is. Duh.)

  7. Great post. I always try to think about, not how the characters feel, but how the reader feels in a given scene. After all, as readers, we want to fall deeply in love too. LOL.

  8. Changing emotions through the story also will give you a chance to give character arc.

    At first, the guy might think, "God, she's beautiful. She's way out of my league."

    Later it might be, "God, she's beautiful. We're really coming to understand each other."

  9. Excellent post. I don't have any romance in my WIP, but these ideas are just as useful for any emotional scene.

  10. I have to agree with Stina. You are an absolutely brilliant help to any writer who visits your site. I think I'd have to read your posts several times to truly be able to get the most of these gems of knowledge and wisdom.

  11. Ahhh, good thoughts. I have such a hard time conveying emotions. I can feel it and understand it perfectly, but writing it down is so much harder.

  12. Stina: Aw, thanks! You made my morning.

    Anne: Most welcome. I wasn't sure what to write this week so I'm glad I spotted this old question.

    Chicory: I'm doing that now, and I think you're right. Then it's okay to just observe and report.

    Cat: It can be tough. I have a lot of staple phrases I use and I always have to go back through and make sure I vary them. But they work for a first draft :)

    Carradee: That's great. I love being able to see where something works and why. Unreliable narrators are fun, and I love when characters misunderstand each other. I need to do a multiple POV so I can play with that more.

    Anon: Oh good, I'm glad I was able to answer your question. Thanks for asking it, as it looks like lots of others have trouble here too.

    E. Arroyo: Great point. Knowing what we want the reader to feel can help a lot in knowing what to show on the page.

    Bruce: Exactly. Emotion is where the growth comes from. You can show growth in how they act, but what they feel gets it across so much better.

    Girl Friday: They are, and I meant this to be a post for even non-romance, but I think my title makes it very romancey (grin) I should add a note at the top that it's for all emotions.

    Shannon: Thanks! I have hot-to books I didn't get the first time I read them (or the second) and then finally, I had enough knowledge so things clicked into place. Writing is like that. It builds on itself so if you still need one step on one level, you don't quite get something on the next level.

    Amber: True of so many things about writing! The more you do it though. the easier it'll get.

  13. Great post! I absolutely agree that most of the times the full conveyance of the emotions has to come in later drafts, after you learn (for yourself) how your characters would specifically feel & react physically to the more intense emotions.

  14. Ooo, not being forced and cheesy. Difficult to do, especially on a tender or romantic scene. But really important! I have to write it first, then wipe up the syrupy stuff on the next pass. ;o)

  15. Hi Janice
    Great post, thanks.
    I can be guilty of having 'go-to' emotional responses to certain things when I write, so this is a handy reminder. I like the external sensations bit as well, not sure I do that enough.

    1. I use those go-to responses as placeholders for a first draft, then I edit them after. Works fairly well to keep the writing flowing and not lose my momentum.

    2. good idea. then later, you can tweak them more.

  16. I can't add much to this conversation except once again, another post to save and re-read! Thanks.

  17. "Mary just said yes! "Cool," he said, nodding his head. Screaming would come later."

    Favorite lines.