One Writer’s Journey

January 30, 2019

Character Emotion: Emotion Ranges from a Little to a Lot

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:28 am
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Character emotion is one of the first things that writers learn to show vs tell.  An angry character yells and stomps.  A sad character cries.  A happy character dances for joy.

But emotions aren’t binary, either on or off.  Sometimes emotions are strongly felt.  Other times they are more subtle.  Part of showing character emotions is learning to express where on a scale of one to ten your character is experiencing this particular emotion. Let’s take satisfaction as an example.  Your character needs to drop something into the mail.  Sealed letter in hand, she hurries to the front door to see the mail carrier stepping up on the porch.  She’s made it.  It’s a small victory so she simply nods her head to herself.  Job well done.

At lunch, she is discussing getting her scholarship application sent out with a friend.  This friend is certain she did it wrong.  “You should have e-mailed it.”  Your character is sure she is right and she’s more than a little tired of this particular friend second guessing everything she does.  While her friend is texting with her latest boyfriend, your character quickly pulls up the information about the scholarship on her phone.  Questions may be e-mailed in but all applications must arrive via snail mail.  She slides her phone across the table and gives a jazz hand salute.  “Ta da! I told you it had to be mailed in.”

Stronger emotion, stronger reaction.

A month later, she’s listening to messages on her phone before she walks to class.  “We’re pleased to inform you that you’ve been selected to receive a full scholarship to state university.”  A full scholarship!  She shrieks, jumps up and down and throws her arms around a passing student – a victory of this magnitude will play out bigger than getting to the mail box before the mailman.

When you are thinking about how to share your character’s emotion, consider not only the emotion but how strongly it is felt.  Will this call for a small, medium or large reaction?


March 6, 2017

Emotion: Making the Reader Feel It Too

What is the most vital job that you have as a writer?  To hook the reader and keep them reading.  To do this you need to emotionmake them care about what you are writing.

In fiction, this means making the reader care about and relate to the character.  One of the best ways to do this is with an emotional connection.  Even if the character is an alien, a sprite, or a yeti, you can help your reader connect by bridging the gap between reader-experience and character-experience using emotion.

First things first is identifying your character’s emotion.  It sounds a little goofy but there you have it.  So often when I am reading a manuscript from a newer writing, the character is moving from event to event without an identifiable emotion.  You might get the occasional jump when they are startled or “ouch” when they are hurt, but that’s about it.  So first things first, identify the character’s emotion at this point in st0ry-time.

Second, think about the emotion as it relates to this particular character.  How does it feel?  What does it mean?

It is way too easy to say, Chet was mad.  Amy was happy.  Bartholomew was confused.  Fantastic.  But how does it feel to these characters?

This is why I have such a love affair with The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  Each entry lists a wide variety of reactions to each emotion.  What are the external responses?  What are the internal responses?  How does a character respond who is try to suppress this emotion?  How does this emotion change if it is felt over an extended period?

Let’s take anger.  My husband bites his bottom lip.  A friend of mine, if angry enough, literally sees red.  People clench their fists, grind their teeth, narrow their eyes and more.  One friend sounds extremely country when he’s trying his darndest not to throttle someone.  Each person has a different response.  Some are external, observable by anyone who cares to take note.  Others, like seeing red, are internal and only the person feeling this emotion may be aware.

Use some of these indicators in your writing to help your reader connect with a familiar emotion.  In this way, you will help them bridge the gap from their world to the world of your character.



April 26, 2016

Inner Dialogue: The window to your character’s thoughts and feelings

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:58 am
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Keck, Cow Parsley, Wild Chervil, Wild Beaked Parsley“I have no idea what your character is feeling?”  “Give me more of your character’s thoughts.”

Character emotion and thoughts are two things that I have trouble balancing.  I’ll think I have it right and my critique group disagrees.  So I rewrite it and then it looks, to me, like way too much. I think I may have stumbled on a solution when I read Mary Kate’s post on character stance.

Basically, what it boils down to is this, instead of giving straight up details on setting and other characters, let the reader know what your character thinks or feels.  Its a great way to work in backstory, emotion and inner dialogue without it being quite so obvious.  I decided to take a look at the page that I roughed out yesterday.

  • Clem spotted an expanse of enormous, fuzzy leaves.  She shifted a few to look beneath and finally found several round green fruit, one here, one there, not clustered.  “Pumpkins.  Not ripe. But this is the right area.  Keep looking.”

What could I do with this?  I could let the reader know whether or not Clem likes pumpkin, how she likes pumpkin or what she wishes they’d found.  Any of these would give a bit more information about my character and help the reader feel that much closer to her.

  • “It’s something but is it something we can eat?” asked Clem.  “Pinch one of the leaves and tell me what it smells like.”
    Gabe gave it a tweak and sniffed at his fingers, wrinkling up his nose.  “Pee-ew.  Onions.”

This one is a touch better.  We know that Gabe doesn’t like onion but why?  How does Clem feel about onion?  Maybe the smell reminds him of someone or someplace else.

  • Gabe nodded and they kept looking.  In a clear, grassy patch where the sun shone, Clem fingered a lacy flower.  “Queen Anne’s Lace.  Mama’s favorite.  If we’d caught ‘em before they flowered, we could eat ‘em.”

I can’t help but feel that I did a little bit better with this one because I worked in some backstory.  This is Mom’s favorite.  Hmm. Maybe I should have had each of the children pick a sprig.

Small details can tell us about the character’s past, what she loves and the things that are running through her mind.


March 9, 2016

Character Emotions: Can You Describe Them?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:09 am
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Man, Woman, Black And White, Embrace, Emotion, TogetherHow do you behave when you are uncomfortable vs when you are mulling over a difficult problem?  The facial expressions look a lot alike so how do you distinguish between the two?  What about anger and concern?  Or surprise and wonder?

You can always tell the reader what your character is feeling but it works much better when you can show the emotion vs telling about it. Instead of writing “Jake was angry,” you would show his anger through facial expressions and gestures and even how he moved.  But before you can describe these expressions, movements and gestures, you need to see them in your mind’s eye.  The best way to do this is to study them.  You can do this by replaying choice scenes from a dramatic movie.

The movie can be one you know well.  If you need to study “anger,” choose a scene where one or more of the characters is truly, deeply peeved.  Two or three angry characters mean that you get to study the way that two or three actors portray these emotions.

Click mute and then play the scene.  Study the characters carefully.  Can you tell when they switch from your target emotion to something else?

Watch the scene again, this time with the sound on.  Were you right?  Could you tell when the character’s emotion changed?

Watch several more scenes, first with the sound off and then with the sound on.  Can you tell what emotions the characters are demonstrating?  Once you get it down, you are ready to write your characters into and back out of an emotional situation.



June 15, 2015

Body Language

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:02 am
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Framed ET resizedIt is amazing how much information people give away by how they behave and they don’t even know that they ‘re doing it.  A glance to the side, a shufffle of feet, or a shrug can tell you more about a person or their state of mind than they reveal by what they say.

This is an amazing opportunity for us as writers.  Just think about it.  You can say, “He was confident.”  Boring.  Just plain boring.

Or you can paint a picture.  “He nodded at several members of the audience as he strode onto the stage.  He found his mark and squared his shoulders, inhaling and exhaling deeply.  Then he began to sing.”

Nervous performer?  Not a chance and I didn’t even have to state his mood.  It is fairly obvious from his actions and his stance.

Are you using these kinds of details to paint a picture about your character?  If not, you’re missing a great opportunity.  And I’m not talking to just the novelists here.  Picture book authors have to use their words wisely.  After all, they have to tell an entire story in fewer words than a YA author uses in a chapter.  Rather then say that a character is depressed or boyant, they can reveal it in how the character walks.  Don’t believe me?  What is the state of mind of a character who plods?  Of one who prances?

Not sure what details go best with what state of mind? One of my favorite reference books is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  This book lists emotions as well as how they manifest themselves both mentally and physically, short and long-term.

Take a look at your work in progress.  What do you tell your reader about your character?  Think carefully.  Is there a way that you could show these details instead?  If there is, you’ve got some rewriting to do before your share your work with a potential editor or agent.


November 13, 2014

Character Emotion: Indirection of Image

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:44 am
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Check out John Thornton Williams post on Glimmer Train.

I’ve written before about character emotion and using a scene to demonstrate how a character feels.  In short, this means that instead of writing “Pablo was happy,” you create a scene that shows Pablo being happy.

Easy enough.  (Snort! As if.)

In his post “Indirection of Image,” John Thornton Williams challenges us to consider and show for our readers how the character’s emotion impacts how he reacts to a specific setting or image.  Think about it, a character who is entering a hospital for a birth will observe and interact with the hospital in one way.  A character whose infant is in neo-natal ICU will have yet a different experience.

Now think about your current project.  Pick a scene with a memorable setting.  How does your character’s emotional state influence what he observes and does within this setting?

Once you’ve found a scene, read over it and then open a new file.  Create another scene in this same setting but swap your charater’s emotion 180 degrees if possible.  If your character is elated in the scene in your story, have him interact with this scene when he is despondent.  If he is angry, create a delighted scene.  If he is sorrowful, rework it with gleeful.

Once you’ve done this, take a look at the setting details.  How your character sees the setting should vary somewhat depending on his emotional state.  If that isn’t the case, spend some time playing with your charcter and get to know how he reacts as a result of various emotions.



September 17, 2013

Show Don’t Tell

Recently, I’ve started to take a harder look at how I express my characters’ emotions.  I’ve noticed that instead of giving my reader pertinent information, I’m often showing what I should be telling.  Let me explain.

If I write “Hillary was curious about her new neighbor” it gets the point across but not much else.  I could do show much more by showing this curiosity in a scene.

“Hillary paced down the row of bushes to the slight gap where she and Katie had cut through to each other’s yards.   Gone from the back porch was Katie’s bike, shiny bike.  In its place leaned a baseball bat, a ratty glove, and a pair of ragged shoes caked in mud.”

Okay, it isn’t Cleary but it tells you not only that Hillary is curious, but also:

  • Her best friend is Katie.
  • Katie used to live next door.
  • She and Katie spent a lot of time going from house to house.
  • Katie might have been a bit meticulous.
  • The new kid plays baseball.
  • The new kids might not be a neat freak.

In this version you actually see a bit of the setting and get a feel for three different characters.  So much better than “Hillary was curious.”  Snore!

I could also pull out The Emotion Thesaurus and add a few tells for Hillary’s emotional state.  Is she sad when she looks into Katie’s former yard?  Lonely?  Angry?  A physical reaction could give the reader a clue without my having to spell it out.

I started noodling this over after reading The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson.  She doesn’t tell me that one character mourned another’s death.  She shows us his silent scream.  Nor does she tell us when he starts to come out of his icy shell.  Instead, he hurries out to greet another character returning from a perilous assignment.  Instead of telling us how the character feels and what he is thinking, she shows us either through action or dialogue.

Off to scout out other lazy bits of writing.


March 25, 2013

How to Hook Your Readers with Character Emotion

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:34 am
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Paint chipOn the wall, I spotted a teaching aid made out of tri-toned paint chips. Each paint chip was labeled with an emotion, for example “scared.” Then each color value was labeled with a more or less intense version of said emotion. This meant that the lightest tint on a green paint chip labeled “scared” might be labeled “worried,” the medium tone “afraid,” and the most saturated “terrified.”

There was a whole stack of these paint chips each for a different emotion. Sad. Angry. Happy. They had been made up to help children understand “shades of meaning,” or what to call it when you’re a little scared vs. really scared.

That’s when it hit me.  Writers need to have an equal awareness of emotional intensity.

If I write a piece with my character emotions in the “tints” the entire time, it is going to be very quiet.  That might be ok, but it might also mean that I need to intensify the emotion.

If, on the other hand, I write a piece in which the characters are always elated, terrified or furious, I’m going to wear my reader out.

To read more about my musings on character emotion, check out yesterday’s blog post at the Muffin.


January 7, 2013

What Are Your Characters Saying Through Their Body Language?

emotionAs a writer, I do my best to show how my characters feel through their actions.   I describe how they stand, what they are doing with their hands and where they are looking.  Often, I take these nonverbal cues from the Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  After reading, “What the Shoulders Say about Us” by Joe Navarro, I wonder if I shouldn’t be including more about shoulders.

As a former FBI counter intelligence agent, Navarro has a slightly different outlook then the psychologists who have written most of the body language articles that I read.  Navarro has gathered his data by interviewing a variety of people including the criminals he helped arrest.

Face it, your shoulders are prominent.  They are out there for everyone to see.  You can duck your head to so that someone can’t look you in the eye.  Or you can wear dark glasses.  But no matter which way you turn, your shoulders show.  A dark jacket doesn’t have the same effect as dark glasses.

Rounded shoulders make us look weak. They tell other people that we lack confidence.  “Come and get me” they say to bullies and various social predators.

Conversely, square your shoulders and you show not only confidence and strength but also respect.

Then there are the shoulder signals that people are less aware of and generally don’t realize that they are sending.  Hitch up one shoulder while you answer a question and it tells the person that you are speaking to that you aren’t confident in the information that you just shared.

While these things are important for an FBI agent, what good are they to a children’s author?  Bullies strut around with squared shoulders.  Their victims hunch in on themselves.  And the bullies best friend, the one who isn’t sure he should be siding with the kid who broke another boy’s arm?  When he answers the teacher’s questions, maybe just maybe one shoulder hitches up slightly.

How do you use body language in the stories that you write?

Special thanks to Sue Uhlig Ford who brought this article to my attention.


November 13, 2012

How to Base Your Writing on Truth

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:53 am
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Weave a truthful emotional path through your story and readers will respond.

Recently, Tara Dairman wrote an Emu’s Debuts blog post called Based on True Events.  She asked her reader whether or not people could tell which elements of their stories were true.

Writing based on life is tricky.  What really happened may not make for a good story.  Perhaps the tension doesn’t build effectively or the antagonist’s motives are unconvincing.  When you get comments back from an editor, your instinct is to resist.  “That isn’t how it happened!”

No, but how it happened apparently doesn’t make an effective story.

What writers often need to do is turn loose of the plot points that don’t work.  They need to relax about characterization.  They need to do what needs to be done to tell a story that works.

The truth that they need to tap into is emotion.  How did it feel to be betrayed by a family member?  Your best friend?  What was running through your mind when that phone call came?  You may not have experienced events as they happen in your story, but as some time in your life, you’ve felt what your character feels.  Tap into the character’s emotions, fiddle with the story as needed, and things will ring true.

I know this because of reader reaction to one of my stories.  “Wow.  You must be a youngest child.  You really know how they feel.”

Actually, I’m the oldest.  That said, this particular story needed to be told from the POV of the youngest child.  I drew on what my sister has said about being the youngest.   What were her experiences?  Her emotions?  I may not have felt those things at those times, but the emotions themselves were familiar.  All I had to do was find them in my own life and tell the story that needed to be told.

Do it and readers will respond to the truth in your story.



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