by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren
An aspiring author once asked me about describing a character’s emotional responses in a scene (show don’t tell!) and still be original every time. So let’s talk about it. What is a good way for describing emotional responses with originality?
I love this question because it’s all about going deeper with your characterization, and really drawing the reader into the story in a way that connects. I believe there are four levels to portraying emotion.
Level 1: Just the facts.
“He was angry.”
Of course, this is boring, and holds the reader the farthest away.
Level 2: Involving the body.
“Anger filled his throat.”
Not bad, because we can understand how that might choke someone, but again, it keeps the reader at arm’s length, unable to relate.
Level 3: The visceral response.
“His throat clogged with emotions that cut off his words.”
Now, we are closer, the emotions remain unnamed, allowing the reader to imagine for himself the array of emotions that might cut off words.
Each level gets further away from telling the reader what to think. But if we really want a reader to engage with a character’s emotions, we need to go to the final level.
Level 4: Put them inside the character’s skin.
How do we do that? 3 STEPS
Step one: Understand the emotions of the scene.
No emotion is pure — every emotion has corresponding “colors.” For example, let’s say the anger above was prompted by someone breaking into your house. That emotion might also contain feelings of helplessness, and revenge. But if the anger is from a spouse cheating, it might also contain the emotions of loss and betrayal. Find out what other emotions are embedded in the main emotion.
Step two: Chose one of the coloring emotions to focus on as you draw out the scene. What metaphor could you use to convey that emotion?
Step three: Create a scene WITHOUT NAMING any of the emotions, or visceral responses.
So how does this work? Before writing a scene, ask yourself what emotions would the character be feeling? Is it love? Could it also be fear of losing that love? And at the same time panic, over losing freedom? Maybe it’s also surprise, that it could happen to them.
Now, what emotion could you pull out of that mix to illuminate the emotion of love? Maybe a woman loves someone who is going to leave for the military, and yet hasn’t admitted it to herself, or him? To illuminate that growing emotion, she could throw out all the newspapers in the house that talk about war. She could refuse to listen to the news.
Finally, what emotion can you then contrast with that first one, to really explore the many sides? Anger, over his patriotism?
Taking a closer look at an emotion and pulling out one of the shades to explore or illuminate makes your character’s emotions not only more real, but sympathetic to the reader as they recognize their own emotions (maybe even for the first time!) in a character’s actions.
Love. Anger. Happiness. These are broad, blanket emotions that can take on many actions and facets. Many “colors.” I want to give you a glimpse of how I did this in my book Taming Rafe.
Rafe’s a tough guy…a bull-rider. And he’s hurt deeply by the actions of the woman he loves. He’s been through a lot, and he’s broken. At his darkest moment, I didn’t want him to punch things, or go on a drinking binge…I wanted the reader to enter into his despair. As I looked at the emotion of GRIEF, I saw: Regret and Hopelessness. I picked those emotions to work with to illuminate the depth of his grief.
Rafe slammed his way upstairs, banged open his bedroom door. The entire house shook. Crossing the room, he ripped his Bobby Russell and Lane Frost posters off the wall and grabbed the box of videotapes he’d dug out for Kitty. He took his trophies, his ribbons, his two championship buckles, and the scrapbook he’d kept for himself over the years and shoved them into his PBR duffel bag. Then he threw them all over his shoulder and stormed back downstairs.
Piper, Stefanie, and Nick stood in the kitchen, holding a powwow of concern.
He ignored them, marched back out to Piper’s truck, threw the bag in the back, and roared out.
He took the back roads to the burial mound, driving as fast as he could without dropping one of the axles. He stopped at the bottom of the hill, lugged out the bag, and muscled himself up the hill.
He threw sticks and twigs together, and taking a lighter he’d found in Piper’s glove compartment, he knelt and lit a blaze.
The flame crackled as it devoured the sticks, then the kindling, and finally the larger pieces of wood he added for fuel. The flame showed no distinction between the fragile and the hearty, biting into the wood with tongues of orange, red, and yellow.
Rafe opened the duffel. Instead of dumping the entire thing on the flames, he pulled the items out one by one. His posters. They burned in a second, curling into tight balls. The ribbons, which sent out an acrid odor. The scrapbook. The fire started on the edges, burning away the accomplishments, the defeats. Then the tapes. The smell of plastic burning made his eyes water and sent black smoke into the now bruised sky. The trophies would take hours to fully burn, but their plastic mounts deformed and caved in on themselves immediately. Finally, the buckles. He dropped both of them into the flames, feeling his throat thicken.
He closed his eyes, smelling a bull’s hide, dirty and sweaty, feeling the adrenaline spike through his body, the jarring as every muscle, every bone screamed in pain. He felt the rush of relief as he let go and rolled off the back hip of the bull, found his feet, and ran to safety. He heard the crowd roar.
The flames crackled, spitting and popping as they devoured his life. The bull rider. The man Kitty claimed she believed in.
Rafe drew up his good knee, crossed his arms atop it, buried his head in them, and for the first time since his mother died—even during Manuel’s funeral, even in the dark months that followed—Rafe let himself cry.
I don’t name the emotions – regret, hopelessness, grief…but hopefully you can feel them.
Now it is your turn. What is your character emotion and how can you bring that on the page with these steps?
Senator and former attorney Ella Blair spends much of her time in the limelight as the second-youngest senator in the country. But she has a secret–one that cost Gage his career. More than anything, she wants to atone for her betrayal of him in the courtroom and find a way to help him put his career back on track.
When Ella’s brother goes missing on one of Glacier National Park’s most dangerous peaks, Gage and his team are called in for the rescue. But Gage isn’t so sure he wants to help the woman who destroyed his life. More, when she insists on joining the search, he’ll have to keep her safe while finding her reckless brother, a recipe for disaster when a snowstorm hits the mountain.
But old sparks relight as they search for the missing snowboarder–and suddenly, they are faced with emotions neither can deny. But when Ella’s secret is revealed, can they learn to trust each other–even when disaster happens again?
Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, Barbour, Steeple Hill, Summerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.