Showing Emotion: When, Why & How

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

Some people read strictly for information. How to make a catapult or cassoulet. What dinosaurs evolved into. When to get the best deal on a new phone.

They don’t care about emotion in a book. So we don’t care about them, either, by golly.

We care about readers who want to know how these characters feel.

  • Readers who might never swear revenge on their mentor’s killer but enjoy knowing what that’d be like.
  • Readers who fell in love with their dream man way-back-when and appreciate re-experiencing that thrill.
  • Readers who like the tense excitement of meeting dangerous challenges without actually walking dark streets at three in the morning.
  • Readers who can’t let themselves cry over a personal sorrow but welcome the relief of letting go when a character suffers deep tragedy.
  • Readers who wonder how they’d react to some incredibly dramatic situation even though their daily life doesn’t offer any such thing.

Those are the people we care about. They’re who we want to draw into a story by showing emotion in all its drama, all its dizzying highs and devastating lows, all its fervor, and all its simplicity, complexity and everything in between.

Donald Maas says “Only when a situation has heavy emotional baggage will a reader pick up that baggage and carry it.

Readers WANT some baggage to carry. That’s one of the reasons they picked up this book.

So for all those readers, the writer needs to make it clear what the character is feeling.

What makes it difficult to show emotion?

That isn’t necessarily a challenge for every writer. But why is it sometimes hard for the rest of us?

Well, there are occasionally times we don’t WANT to feel an emotion if it’s painful. (“Why put myself through that agony?”) Sometimes we don’t want to see what we’re missing if it’s wonderful. (“My heroine gets to enjoy all of this while I can’t?!”) Sometimes there’s an emotion we haven’t personally lived through. (“I have no idea WHAT he’d feel in a situation like that.”) Sometimes we’re faced with a lack of experience. (“I can see it all just fine in my head, but getting it onto a page is tough.”)

And yet, drat it, enough readers seem to want books where emotion comes through clearly that it’s worth pursuing that challenge.

When you think about books that have held YOUR interest over the years, how did they handle emotion?

Was the viewpoint character someone who could be described as relatively detached? Like Sherlock Holmes, or the on-the-spectrum guy from The Rosie Project?

Was it someone who wears their heart on their sleeve? Like the heroine of Bridget Jones’ Diary, or Jamie Fraser in Outlander, or Lou the caregiver in Me Before You?

Was it someone who tried to suppress their emotions until everything comes spilling out, like the narrator in The Book Thief or Eve Dallas in the J.D. Robb series?

We can see characters showing emotions in all kinds of ways.

And yet those ways don’t always come to mind when we’re writing an emotional scene. Which leads to the first step in showing emotion, and that’s recognizing what it IS that this character’s feeling…or trying not to feel.

Identifying an emotion makes it easier to decide how to show it.

You don’t necessarily want to take the first one that comes to mind:

  • “Let’s see, somebody shot at her so…she’s scared.”
  • “His boss just fired him so…he’s angry.”
  • “Her true love just proposed so…she’s happy.”
  • “He won the gold medal so…he’s proud.”

There’s nothing WRONG with a character feeling fear, anger, happiness, or pride. But readers will love it when you drill down a bit deeper for exactly what’s going on within this person.

How are they feeling?

Some possibilities might be:

  • Abandoned, Accepting, Admiring
  • Adoring, Aggressive, Agitated
  • Alert, Amazed, Amused
  • Angry, Anguished, Annoyed
  • Anticipating, Anxious, Apathetic
  • Appalled, Appreciative, Apprehensive
  • Aroused, Ashamed, Astonished
  • Attentive, Awed, Betrayed
  • Bewildered, Blissful, Bitter
  • Bold, Bored, Brave
  • Bullied, Busy, Certain
  • Challenged, Concerned, Confident
  • Conflicted, Confused, Contemptuous
  • Contented, Courageous, Creative
  • Critical, Curious, Cynical
  • Daring, Defensive, Delighted
  • Depressed, Desiring, Disappointed
  • Disapproving, Disbelieving, Disenchanted
  • Disgusted, Disillusioned, Dismayed
  • Dismissive, Disrespected, Disrespectful
  • Distant, Distracted, Distressed
  • Eager, Ecstatic, Elated
  • Embarrassed, Empathetic, Empty
  • Enraged, Envious, Euphoric
  • Excited, Excluded, Exposed
  • Fatigued, Fearful, Fearless
  • Flustered, Forlorn, Fragile
  • Free, Frightened, Frustrated
  • Glad, Gloomy, Glum
  • Grateful, Grieving, Grouchy
  • Grumpy, Guilty, Happy
  • Hateful, Helpless, Hesitant
  • Homesick, Hopeful, Horrified
  • Hostile, Humble, Humiliated
  • Hurt, Impatient, Inadequate
  • Indecisive, Indifferent, Indignant
  • Inferior, Infuriated, Insecure
  • Insignificant, Inspired, Intimate
  • Isolated, Jealous, Joyful
  • Jubilant, Judgmental, Lonely
  • Longing, Lost, Loving
  • Mad, Merry, Miserable
  • Misunderstood, Moody, Nervous
  • Numb, Optimistic, Overjoyed
  • Overwhelmed, Panicked, Passionate
  • Peaceful, Peeved, Pensive
  • Persecuted, Playful, Pleased
  • Possessive, Powerful, Powerless
  • Pressured, Proud, Provoked
  • Raging, Regretful, Rejected
  • Relieved, Reluctant, Remorseful
  • Repelled, Resentful, Resigned
  • Respected, Respectful, Revolted
  • Ridiculous, Rushed, Sad
  • Satisfied, Scared, Scornful
  • Secretive, Selfish, Self-loathing
  • Self-pitying, Sensitive, Serene
  • Shocked, Shy, Skeptical
  • Smug, Sorrowful, Sorry
  • Sour, Startled, Stressed
  • Strong, Stubborn, Submissive
  • Surprised, Suspicious, Sweet
  • Tender, Terrified, Thankful
  • Thoughtful, Thwarted, Timid
  • Tired, Triumphant, Trusting
  • Unsupported, Unworthy, Upbeat
  • Valued, Victimized, Vigilant
  • Vivacious, Vulnerable, Weak
  • Weary, Wishy-washy, Withdrawn
  • Worried, Worthless, Worthwhile

There are quite a few techniques for making every single one of those feelings come through clearly on the page, which next month’s Showing Emotion class will cover in more detail. And if more than two dozen people leave responses below, one of ‘em will win free registration TO that class!

Here’s the question to respond to:

What scene from any book, your own or someone else’s, sticks in your mind as an example of showing an emotion from the list above?

I love hearing about (and from) writers who do it well! And I’ll announce the winner, if there is one, on Saturday morning. While feeling, let’s see, jubilant. No, excited. No, optimistic. Hmm…

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About Laurie

Laurie Schnebly Campbell was honored when a friend observed, “For somebody who tends to be pretty low-key about expressing emotion, you had me crying AND laughing harder than I expected while reading your book.” She’ll present techniques for doing that (and more) from May 10-21 in Showing Emotion, an all-email class at WriterUniv.com.

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