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.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).
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?
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.