Adding emotion to your writing is a crucial element in writing a great book. A story can have good structure and well-written prose, but if it has no emotion, readers wouldn’t feel as captivated by the story. We want to feel when we read. To achieve this, we need to make sure our characters have clear emotions.
How to show emotion
But how do you go about showing emotions? One way is, of course, to tell exactly how a character feels. That would go something like this:
The enemy army was advancing fast. Grayden felt terrified. “It’s a larger army than I thought,” he said to Jordan next to him. “We can take them,” Jordan said with confidence, even though he was scared.
This might become boring after too many repetitions. Besides, emotional words like terrified or scared might mean different things to different people. Maybe my definition of scared is closer to terrified, while your definition of scared is more like anxiousness.
There are, luckily, many more interesting ways to show emotions. We can do this by describing internal sensations, showing physical signals and behaviors, and mental responses. Behavior also changes when emotions are suppressed, or when they’re acute or long-term.
What signals, sensations, and thoughts to use?
It’s tough to come up with the right thing for each emotion. That is why I highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus (click here for some samples). This book is a lifesaver. I use this book every time I edit a scene. You can use it as follows:
Read your scene.
Identify the emotions your characters are feeling.
Look up the emotions in the thesaurus.
Add the appropriate behaviors and sensations.
Check out the example below for the emotion fear.
1. Physical signals and behaviors
Using physical signals and behaviors to show emotion is a great tool to use, especially for non-POV characters. Unless you’re writing from an omniscient viewpoint, you can’t access the internal sensations or mental responses of these characters. Thus, you need to show what these characters are feeling.
In the case of fear, the book gives a lot of examples (36 of them), so I will limit it to 15:
The face turning ashen, white, or pallid
Body odor and cold sweats
Wiping clammy hands on one’s clothing to rid them of sweat
Trembling lips and chin
Tendons standing out in the neck
Veins beating a visible pulse beneath the skin
Elbows pressing into the sides, making one’s body as small as possible
Freezing, feeling rooted to the spot
An inability to speak
Staring but not seeing
Eyes that are shut or crying
Hands jammed into armpits or self-hugging
One’s breaths bursting in and out.
2. Internal sensations
If you have access to the internal world of your character, you can also showcase internal sensations. Well-placed visceral reactions can be powerful.
For fear, the book mentions 8 internal sensations:
Shakiness in the limbs (causing increased clumsiness)
A racing heartbeat that causes pains in the chest
The sensation of one’s hair lifting on the arms and nape of the neck
Dizziness and weakness in the legs and knees
A loosening of the bladder
Holding one’s breath, or gulping down breaths to stay quiet
A stomach that feels rock-hard
Hypersensitivity to touch and sound.
3. Mental responses
If you have access to the internal world of your character, you can also show emotion by how the character responds mentally. Even when you don’t have access to the internal world, you can still show the actions that are consequences of these mental responses.
Some options for fear are:
Wanting to flee or hide due to a sense of impending doom
The sensation of things moving too quickly to process
Images of what could be flashing through the mind
Jumping to a course of action without thinking things through
A skewed sense of time
Mistrusting one’s own judgment (when it comes to safety and security).
4. Acute or long-term responses
Emotions can look different when someone’s had them for a long time or when they suddenly arise. In your writing, it’s good to make this distinction.
Exhaustion or insomnia
The heart giving out
Panic attacks, phobias, or depression
Withdrawing from others
Tics (a repetitive grimace, a head twitch, talking to oneself, etc.)
Resistance to pain from rushing adrenaline
5. Signs of suppression
And, of course, when someone suppresses a specific emotion, that can also lead to different reactions. If your character wants to act like everything’s fine, they will give off different signals.
If you’re hiding your fear, you might:
Deny fear through diversion or changing topics
Turn away from the cause of fear
Attempt to keep one’s voice light
Give a watery smile that’s forced into place
Mask fear with a reactive emotion (anger or frustration) or showing false bravado
Overindulge in a habit (nail biting, lip biting, scratching the skin raw, etc.)
Tell jokes in a voice that cracks.
Above are different ways you can showcase the emotion fear. Many of them don’t involve the standard description, such as a rapid heartbeat or sweating. It’s easy to pick some and insert them into your story to add emotion. Don’t go overboard with it, though. No one needs five different behaviors, a mental response, and two internal sensations to describe one emotion.
Let’s see this in action in the example I gave at the beginning. See how different it looks when we show emotion.
The enemy army was advancing fast. Too fast, Grayden thought, feeling as if his legs would soon give out. “It’s a larger army than I thought,” he said to Jordan next to him, trying to suppress the trembling in his voice. “We can take them,” Jordan said with a watery smile, turning away from the sight. “They’ll never even make it inside. Don’t worry.”
Here, we’ve added a thought, internal sensation, and behavior for Grayden, showing his anxiousness. In addition, we’ve given Jordan the watery smile and false bravado to show he’s suppressing his fear.
Do you see how it’s more visceral, pulling you in more than when the emotions are told?