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Show Some Emotion

There is a recurring issue I notice when reading through students’ work on all the creative courses I’ve taught.
It is a flatness to the writing, brought about by a reluctance to show emotion in a character.
This strikes me as odd. We all know the heart of any story is conflict and we have heard the analogy of putting your protagonist in a tree and throwing bigger and bigger rocks at them. We make our characters suffer – because if we don’t, there is no story.
What is surprising is how stoic some characters can appear to be. I have read a story in which a person’s supposedly dead relative turned up out of the blue and the protagonist was able to hold a perfectly cogent conversation with them. Now if this happened to me, I would be a blithering wreck.
I have read time-travel stories in which a character realises they have defied the laws of nature and hurtled back through the centuries, but faced with this astounding situation, they barely turn a hair.
I pointed out this lack of emotion to a (non-OCA!) student recently. I was met with the response that their character was intended to be a very practical person, difficult to ruffle. But something extraordinary has just happened to her, I argued.
And then came the crux of the matter – this student did not like writing about emotions. They did not like it, because they did not know how to do it.
I think this is often the case. It’s easier, in a way, to explain how not to do it. The way not to do it is to state: ‘She was terrified’. ‘I was furious’, etc.
Imagine your character is an actor on stage, unable to tell the audience how they feel in as many words – they simply have to show it. They will do this, using empathy and memories and a range of other techniques. Are actors more imaginative than writers? Surely not.  As writers, we need to empathise, and we have to find the feeling behind the words.
Use of body language is good, but there are dangers. I’ve seen a writers’ textbook that is set out rather like a dictionary, purporting to suggest body language for every emotion a writer may care to convey (and they are set out alphabetically). This, too, concerns me. If a character is A for Angry, they will ball their fists, etc. But surely that way lies the cliché? Off-the-peg body language will lead to mass-produced characters, lacking in the individuality needed to connect with a reader.
Take a tip from the poets and try imagery to indicate emotion. Like an actor, use props to help convey your meaning. Use dialogue, and think of the impact of what is not said, as well as what is. Show the impact of the emotion on the body, in a way that you have never read before. Now: how does that feel?


Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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7 thoughts on “Show Some Emotion

  • Thank you for a great article Barbara, especially the tip about thinking like an actor. I found it helpful to act out my characters when building their biographies. Interviewing them and using a small recorder. The results were extraordinary and spontaneous enabling emotion to surface easily. Sub text, what is not said is an area I have yet to master. Can you recommend any helpful books we can study about sub text and how to use imagery to show emotion?

  • I remember being asked by a friend who had a written a radio play and needed to hear it before embarking on a new draft. She was a good writer (published and broadcast several times), but when we got to the climax of the story she realised that everyone was being too rational. I was playing a copper who had been called to sort something out (I think the main character had stolen a baby in a crisis brought on by losing one), and I had to say something along the lines of ‘but you can’t keep it. It’s not yours.’ I think I added a mild expletive as well as ‘you STOLE it!’. I can’t really claim any credit as she’d written a good build up and I was swept along.
    I think she changed it so that the person who is supposed to be objective – the copper – would be the most outraged.
    Des reading out dialogue help? In a radio play it’s imperative, but surely even fiction for the page has to be sayable? Perhaps if you’re going for something more contrary or arch, then it shouldn’t, but otherwise, probably.
    Also, does reported speech help here as something authorial can be added?
    What about the rhythm of the language used? Short staccato passages imply something different to long languorous words that slow the reader down.

  • As a poet who teaches how to write both poetry and fiction, I welcome Barbara’s suggestions. In poetry, in particular, if you start with the emotion, you are likely to write explanations and cliches. You need to start with images which may or may not be metaphors, and trust your images to carry the message or emotion without explanations.

  • It’s easy to get boxed into a corner with all the good advice that students receive. ‘Show don’t tell’, try not to use adjectives, don’t even think about using adverbs, don’t use the body language that everybody will recognise etc. We know that creative writing isn’t easy, but an expectation that we should find totally original images all the time is enough to make a chrysanthemum wilt. (See what I mean?) I suggest that we should focus on making our characters full, rounded individuals so that the reader will empathise with them. After that we should only need a minimum of interior monologue, or a trembling lip to convey their emotion.

  • I wonder if this lack of emotion is a fashion thing. There was a time (and we are possibly still in it) when showing emotion in visual art was seen as not quite contemporary enough. Many artists devised ways of hiding their hand in the work, including getting technicians to make it. This, I suppose, reflects the mundane qualities of our world which many creative people feel they want to express. I am not a writer, so don’t know if the same pull of fashion applies.

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