From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Friday, February 8

Alternative Ways to Describe Character Reactions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Twice in the last week I’ve gotten questions about finding good alternative ways to use common reaction/emotion words. He smiled. She gulped. He frowned. She cringed. (Actually, that’s a story right there, isn’t it? He sounds like a stalker to me) Anyway…

These words get used a lot because they’re good words. Smiling to show happiness, frowning to show displeasure, gulping to show fear. But if your characters are reacting to a lot of a particular emotion, you start to run out of words.

How do you keep the emotional reactions fresh without resorting to the same words and phrases over and over?

1. Don’t worry about it during a first draft

I use a lot of placeholder words when I write. Smiled, frowned, and gulped are all words that encapsulate the reaction I want without bogging me down as I’m writing. They require no brainpower, leaving me open to focus on the scene itself.

Use as many placeholder words as you want while drafting. They’re like writing shorthand and are easy to find and edit later.

(More on placeholder worlds here)

2. Do a reaction revision pass

After the draft is done, try searching for all those common words you know you use a lot. (I like to do them one at a time, because it’s easier for me to remember what phrases I used.) For example, search for all instances of smiled, then decide if smiled is the perfect word for that situation, or if you can show that emotion or reaction in a better way.

Possible options include:

Can this emotion be expressed through a synonym?
Swap smiled for grinned, or trembled for shuddered.

Can this emotion be expressed through internalization?
A quick What a jerk might convey the same idea as a frown.

Can this emotion be expressed through dialog?
“You're hysterical!” can replace a smile or laugh.

Can this emotion be expressed through movement?
Her lip twitched and her eyes sparkled might work better than a smile.

Can this emotion be expressed through bodily functions?
Tears wet her cheeks like diamonds could work instead of she cried.

Can this emotion be expressed through involuntary reactions?
She jerked away, eyes tight, might show more than she cringed.

Can this emotion be expressed through other senses than usual?
Fear is often shown by how the stomach or throat reacts, but what about sounds or smells? Ears might ring, or things might sound distant and muffled. Scents might trigger memories that evoke the emotion you want to show.

Can this emotional be expressed through subtext? 
Sometimes what we don’t say is more telling. “Why of course you can stay,” she said, ripping her napkin into small pieces.

(More on describing emotions here)

4. Don’t feel you have to change everything

Some of these words are like said. They’re invisible and readers absorb and move on. If you try to eliminate them completely from your manuscript there’s a good chance it’ll sound overwritten and feel like you’re trying too hard. If one quick word works, don’t worry about it. Don’t mess up your pacing just because you’ve used she frowned a lot.

(More on pacing and reactions here)

Look for spots where you can layer in more than just simple reactions. Those moments where delving a little deeper in that reaction will also show an aspect of the character or allow for description or world building. Someone who’s nervous might play with things around them, or notice more than they normally would, or think crazy thoughts.

A scene that is designed to bring out a particular emotion is a great place to elaborate the details of a reaction. If you’re building on a character’s fear, you might start out with simpler physical reactions (like a gulp or racing heart) and then move closer into more visceral emotional responses.

Keep the importance of the emotion in mind. The more critical to the scene, the more you can flesh it out. For example:
The floor above creaked. She tensed.

The floor above creaked. Her hand flew to her throat, fingers trembling though the rest of her coiled tight. What was that? Was someone in the house?
If the next line in this scene is “She relaxed—just the cat” readers might find the overreaction a bit melodramatic. But if there is someone in the house, and this moment has been building for six chapters, then a larger reaction is both justified and appropriate (and probably expected).

5. Take the character into consideration

People react differently to things, and you and use that to maintain variety in your descriptions. Maybe someone is very physical and notices how their body reacts, while another is more cerebral and thinks through their emotions. Someone might hide what they feel while another announces it. Use the emotions to reflect the personalities of your characters.

Don’t be afraid to mix it up.

Just for fun, let’s hear your mini-stories using two word sentences like I did in the opening paragraph. (He smiled. She gulped. He frowned. She cringed.) Best story gets a 1000-word critique from me. I’ll pick a winner on Tuesday, February 12.(Contest closed)

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. This is an excellent list and I definitely agree with the use of placeholder words. I'm currently revising some of my earlier chapters and mixing things up a bit.

    Here's my story. Something I saw on the subway this evening:

    She texted. He watched. She texted. He waited. She noticed. They smiled.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Lovely post, Janice! And I'll add that this is timely. The agents and editors at the SCBWI-NY conference last weekend pointed out that they are tired of seeing hearts, stomachs, guts, etc. jerking, beating, clenching or whatever else. They urge us to find more original ways to reference even visceral reactions!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Great post. Something I definitely need to examine in my 2nd draft, I definitely used place-holders in the 1st draft.

    My story:

    He laughed. She blushed. He smiled. She sighed. He leaned. She tensed. He hesitated. They kissed.

  6. This is such a good lesson! Thanks!

    I retired. I relaxed. I golfed. I tinkered. I missed. I struggled. I worked. She left.

  7. I have to shake my head recognizing so many of these things in my work, especially the first draft.

    Let me see if I can figure something out.

    They bumped. He flinched. She jumped. He smiled. She blushed. She leaned. He held. They sighed.

  8. Hey Janice
    Thanks for the post, really useful stuff.
    I hadn't come across the idea of placeholder words before, but it's a fantastic concept. I don't mind reaching for the thesaurus, but it can take me out of the flow, so this should help.
    Point 2 is also a great help for editing. I'm still learning effective ways to edit and this seems like a good one.
    Thanks again
    Sorry to be annoying, but where's number 3?!:)
    He ran, he stumbled, he gasped. She laughed, she turned. He fell. He sobbed. She rejoiced.

  9. Janice, what a fun invitation. What a great way to get me to leave a comment :)

    Here's my attempt:

    Fists clenches. Belly burns. Eyes widen.

    No, no.

    Can’t be.

    Go away.

    Head hurts. Thoughts flying. Helter-skelter.

    “Stay back.” Rubs temple. Rubs gooseflesh. Rubs, rubs. “Respect me.”

  10. My characters are either smiley, nodding bobbleheads or shifty-eyed devils during my first draft. This post is an excellent reminder not to fuss over certain favorites during the drafting process!

    Here's my little story.

    She primped. I ogled. She blushed. I tittered. She snorted. I gasped.

  11. Your posts are always really helpful. Thanks for posting. :D

    Here is my attempt:

    He smiled. She blushed. He talked. She listened. He asked. She told. Good Friends. Not enough. She fell. He didn't. Broken Heart. Moving on. Lost chances. Bitter regrets. Lost friendship. Nothing left.

  12. Thanks for another great post.

    Here's mine:

    She shivered. He smirked. She glared. He laughed. She turned. He advanced. She stopped. He pleaded. She refused. He cajoled. She sighed. She smiled.

  13. As always your spot on suggestions helped improve my manuscript. Each gem highlights another weakness and makes it strong. Here is a little story about a six year old's bad moment:

    I lied, Mom glared, I hid, Mom discovered, I cried, Mom lectured, I apologized, Mom smiled.

  14. Hi Janice,
    Thank you for giving me permission to use "place holder" words. I love that expression. Now I won't scowl at my writing anymore.
    I'm up for the challenge.
    He scowled. I pouted.
    He shouted. I balled.
    He smirked. I stomped.
    He chuckled. I giggled.
    He puckered. We smooched.

  15. Great post, very useful. Here's my story.

    She murmured. He listened. She sighed. He gasped. She died. He wept.

  16. That detail that different people react to things differently can't be overstated. My brother wears his emotions on his sleeves. I…don't. I get called "reserved", just due to how I keep my reactions controlled and mild. (My parents mock me that my eyes lighting up and me saying "Ooo!" mean I'm very, very excited about a present.)

    Different people react differently to the selfsame emotion—and folks can have the selfsame reaction to different emotions, which can be fodder for character misunderstandings.

    As for my mini story, hmm…

    She grinned. He scowled. She pointed. He zipped. She smirked. He sighed.

  17. I searched, I found, I read,
    she inspired, I pondered, I gave, I hoped, she chose...
    This is such a fun idea, not to mention a great place to learn.
    Thank you.

  18. I run into this problem all the time. I like your idea of place holders, so I can get the story out.

    I use the Synonym Finder - way better than the average thesaurus and the Emotional Thesaurus. Love that Emotional Thesaurus.

    Dad shook. "Not her."
    Tears flooded. Mom convulsed. "Our baby."
    Cold fingers. Closed eyes.
    Shared sobs.

  19. She cried. Blood Pouring.
    He laughed.
    “Why Jacob?” She asked.
    “Everyone dies.”
    Looking back. She’d known.
    “I forgive…” she bagan.
    “No Mom.” He said. “I’m sorry.”
    He grunted. Falling down.
    She’d known. Yet failed.
    Locked up. Needed help. She failed.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. Another great post Janice! Love this contest. Below is my submission.

    He lied.
    She knew.
    He recanted.
    She listened.
    He cried.
    She watched.
    He apologized.
    She left.