Thursday, May 20, 2021

Emotions and the Body: Less Cliché Ways the Body Responds to Emotional States

By Bonnie Randall

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: If a cliché is a cliché for a reason, is it still a cliché? Bonnie Randall shares how common emotional responses actually connect with readers.

The other day I read a writing article that really lambasted authors who ‘overuse’ so-called clichéd emotional responses for their characters. “Readers,” the article said, “are really sick of hearing that someone’s gut dropped when they were startled or that their belly got loose when they were scared.”

I confess my heart sank (heh heh) when I saw this. First, as an author, I get a little shirty when I hear that readers are sick of this or sick of that. The snarky curmudgeon in me says “Well then maybe they should write their own damn books!” Second, though, those so-called clichés exist for a reason.
The human body is built in such a way that it reacts in universal, highly predictable ways to certain emotional stimuli. As a matter of fact, in the therapy room (I’m a counselor by trade), we almost always ask our clients “Where do you feel that in your body?” so as to help them process emotional experiences.

(Here’s more with Leveraging The Emotional Spectrum in Your Writing)

Identifying not just what is being felt, but where it is being felt can help orient people and /or build awareness with regard to how their body is “speaking to them” during a particularly turbulent emotional episode. Such an exercise better equips people to be fully mindful of themselves when they become emotional, and what’s more, it is not uncommon to hear the same answers from myriad clients when asked “Where do you feel the anger in your body? The sadness in your body?” Etc.

In other words, when your character’s belly gets loose as the Sasquatch starts barreling at her from out of that delightfully tranquil forest, it is both normal and typical. After all, most (all?) people’s belly’s would do that very thing! So, clichés or not, these responses are actually what allow us to relate to characters in fiction; they react in ways we know to be true because, faced with similar circumstances, we’ve been there ourselves.

That said, though, how about a quick little laundry list of some other, maybe less cliché ways the body responds to emotional states?

(Here’s more with Alternative Ways to Describe Character Reactions)

Here goes:

Fear Evokes –
  • the inclination to bolt or shrink back
  • a sense of time slowing down / standing still/ overall disorientation
  • absence of breath / arrested breath
  • freezing in place
  • you feel your eyes pull wide
  • paralyzed throat
  • a ‘fluttering’ heartbeat / heartbeat that feels unstable
  • chilled extremities as blood vessels constrict for efficiency to fight/flight/freeze

Sadness Evokes –
  • lump in throat
  • constricted throat
  • welling eyes / stinging eyes / blurry eyes
  • aching chest
  • languid reflexes / slow reaction
  • inattentiveness even to grandiose outside stimuli
  • wobbling breath / wobbling voice
  • over-all numbness

Anger Evokes –
  • rush of body heat (you feel red)
  • audible blood-rush in ears
  • immediate pressure / tension headache
  • all-over muscle tension (“Wired up”)
  • blurred / tunnel vision at object of rage
  • springing / reflexive fight

Excitement Evokes –
  • adrenaline spike / sense of feeling electrified
  • starburst in belly
  • light-limbed (‘light’ as in ‘not heavy’)
  • breathlessness / held breath
  • chest flutter
  • a ‘rush’ similar to a stimulant experience

Shame Evokes —
  • shrinking—like pulling one’s neck down into the shoulders
  • making self small / curling up
  • sour belly
  • overheating / feeling florid
  • inability to keep eye contact / skittish gaze

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel)

Exercise: Now go back to each category and reflect on the last time(s) you experienced the same feeling. Where did you feel it in your body? From scalp to soles, check in there and catalog the reactions. List them under the others provided here. Add other emotions and repeat the same task—where on your body did you feel it? Jot them down, then shake all the residual, remembered feelings off by awakening a great playlist, or reading something light that makes you laugh.

Keep the cheat sheet you’ve created handy as you work the next scenes in your stories and afford your characters authentic body responses to emotional stimuli!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

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Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”


  1. Great list. I'm a big believer in *The Emotion Thesaurus*'s complete lists, but it's good to have shorter ones on hand too.

    I have my own rule of thumb on this: emotions make us move *toward* the thing that affects us, or in some way that prepares us for it. If someone gorgeous walks into a bar, we watch, we move closer, or we primp or position ourselves-- or we turn away so we don't get in over our heads. If an enemy walks in, *same thing*: advance, or prepare or retreat or something like it.

    As for seeming like cliches... that might be a numbers game. The more often writing actually mentions a physical reaction, the more it risks repeating itself unless it branches into a more obscure sensation, or simply describes it more interestingly.

  2. A very good list especially the way you came up with it - interviewing people after they were in that state. Not sure what starburst in belly means though.

  3. thanks for these reminders! Carol Baldwin

  4. I like that exercise. I'm going to try that.

    Trying to avoid cliches is always good writing advice, but every once in a while I read something where I think the author was trying a little too hard to say something different. Something like "Jane felt as if a salmon were slithering up her esophagus." Job one should be saying clearly what you mean to say. Avoiding cliches is somewhere further down the list.

  5. this is great! I was pointed to your blog by Voracious Readers and I've bookmarked it now. thanks for these tips.

  6. When I'm reading a good story, it doesn't bother me in the slightest if a character's heart sinks or their guts churn. I'm more irritated by the kind of clunky sentences penned by writers trying too hard to be original, because that will take me right out of the story.

  7. Cliches are, for me, first drafts of... something primal. As you said, there's a reason for their existence - they express something basic particularly well.

    But that doesn't mean you have to use the cliched form of the statement - I love taking them and twisting their guts to make something better. The result is often still recognizable - but also fresh.

    My editing software, AutoCrit, identifies gobs of cliches - and I examine each one to see how it can be improved. It's part of the polishing process each scene goes through. Some I leave - often little ones such as 'she shrugged,' because a short form interrupts the flow less than something more elaborate; if I do, I make sure that particular one is never used again in the scene (my damaged brain tends to throw up duplicates in the heat of writing). AutoCrit counts everything - makes it easier not to be repetitive.