20 Emotion Description

Descriptions of characters, actions and events are normally something authors find easy to understand, once the basic elements have been explained. However, weaving emotion into your novel, without being able to fall back on TELL (he was sad), is no easy task.

The key to understanding the best way to deal with emotion description is to revert to the principles of Show, Don’t Tell. The fundamental concept of the system is that, if you can provide a truthful description of a character’s words and actions, this will stimulate an emotion in the reader.

At the most basic level, TELLING the reader someone is sad will do nothing, but SHOWING the reader someone is sad, by describing the actions of a sad person, will stimulate a level of sadness in the reader.

If we can SHOW the reader an emotion, describing the emotion in a way that triggers the reader’s own internal emotions, we are going to produce a far more powerful reading experience than one in which we TELL the reader how to feel.

Deep stuff.

Here’s an example:

John cried with sadness.

This is pure TELL. We are TELLING the reader that John is sad. This is emotionally sterile. We don’t want the reader to know John is sad; we want the reader to feel John’s sadness.

Try this example:

John slumped into the chair. He leaned forward, placed his head in his hands and sobbed. Huge body-shaking sobs racked John’s body, each coming in a wave, and, with every sob, he let out a low whimper.

In this example, we SHOW the reader that John is sad. We are not TELLING the reader what John is feeling; we describe John’s actions while experiencing sadness. In the process, we create a narrative space. Since we don’t tell the reader what John is feeling, the reader is forced to work it out alone. It is this narrative space that the reader will fill. The reader tries to match John’s actions with those actions that the reader has experienced. The reader’s brain will match the actions to an emotion. In the process, the reader triggers that same emotion within his or her mind.

Your job, and perhaps the most difficult part of writing, is to write descriptions of an emotion in action that are truthful reflections of the way a character would act when experiencing that certain emotion. The more truthful your description, the deeper your understanding of human nature, the more powerful your writing will become.

Now imagine this same example at the end of a scene where John has just returned from the hospital, after identifying his five-year-old daughter’s body following her death in a car crash.

Hold that image in your mind, and read the example a second time:

John slumped into the chair. He leaned forward, placed his head in his hands and sobbed. Huge body-shaking sobs racked John’s body, each coming in a wave, and, with every sob, he let out a low whimper.

John cried with sadness, my arse!

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Emotion Description Copyright © 2018 by BubbleCow. All Rights Reserved.

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