Friday, January 18, 2019

Alternative Ways to Describe Character Reactions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Human emotion is universal, so it's easy to use the same description over and over. Here are ways to keep your emotional descriptions fresh. 

I frequently receive 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 and get the point we're trying to make across. Smiling to show happiness, frowning to show displeasure, gulping to show fear. But after a while, characters reacting to the same emotions the same way over and over feels repetitive.

However, switching it up too much can lead to overwriting. If a character never smiles, but beams, smirks, grins, curls a lip, corners of the mouth rise, and all the other various ways we write to say "smile," it can feel awkward. Like "said," "smiled" and the like are fairly invisible, so while readers do notice them, they don't tend to stick out unless they are too many of them.

Things to remember when writing emotional reactions:

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

First drafts are for getting the story down, so don't stress over how you do that. I use a lot of placeholder words during a first draft to keep my momentum going. 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. But in draft two, I develop those areas further.

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

(Here's more on the freedom of placeholder words in a first draft)

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 dialogue? “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.

(Here's more on matching actions to feelings)

3. 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.

(Here's more on pacing and character reactions)

Look for spots where you can layer in more than just simple reactions. Find 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.

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

Option Two: 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). Just having her tense would feel weak.

4. Take the character into consideration

People react differently to things, and you can 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.

(Here's more on how unexpected reactions cam heighten emotions)

The more varied the reactions and emotions of your characters, the more they'll stand out as unique people. Their personalities can better clash and blend as needed in the story, and make every scene memorable for readers.

Do you vary your emotional reactions? How do you like to handle emotional responses?

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)

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


  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.

  22. Thanks for the great post.
    Here's my mini:

    I delivered. Someone groaned. Eyes rolled. Crowd ruthless. Joke butchered. Hopes dashed. I bolted.

  23. Your advice on this is fantastic! Here's mine for the fun :)

    They bumped. She apologized. He flirted. She blushed. He stared. She avoided. He stalked.

  24. thank you so much. this is such a big help