Emotional Roller Coaster

We did a very good exercise at the writing group recently – write a short scene where a character expresses an extreme emotion, such as anger, joy, grief, passion, impatience. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But we’d been instructed to show the emotion, rather than tell it. So “she was frightened” was never going to cut it. We had to create a feeling with words.
Emotions are critical to making a character feel real, but mere descriptions will leave the reader feeling disconnected, as the author is telling the reader how the character feels. When I read my first attempt out loud, I realised that I’d managed to create some emotion, but it could have been any emotion; there wasn’t anything to distinguish anger from excitement, fear or impatience. For example: She chewed her fingernails down to the quick, conjures up a picture of a nervous or frightened individual. Equally, it could be an impatient girl chewing her nails as she waits for the bus or because she bites her nails out of habit. Ho-hum. As an expression of emotion, it’s not very precise, is it? But if we add, ‘until they bled’ we inject an extra frisson from which the reader can infer an element of fear or edginess.
Readers identify with fiction through the characters and the best way to reach your audience is through your characters’ emotions. When we show a character’s feelings – by showing how characters relate to each other, or how they react to conflict – we allow the audience to connect with them on an intuitive and emotional level. Understanding how your characters might react will help you describe how they feel. And when one character reacts in a certain way this gives another character a chance to react to them and emotions can build.
Thoughts and dialogue
Emotions can trigger mental and verbal responses. A character could silently urge another to Come on! to show impatience; a moment of self-reflection in, what an idiot, can convey the same emotion as raised eyebrows.
Physical signs
Emotions trigger physical reactions and readers use these clues to determine how a character feels. Racing heart, nail biting and sweaty palms all signal fear, but they can also signify impatience or passion in other circumstances. And don’t forget unconscious or involuntary reactions such as blushing, a sharp intake of breath, or foot tapping.
Subtext
Sometimes what a character doesn’t say is more telling than what they do. Outward behaviour that contradicts inner thoughts and feelings can show several layers of emotion. Subtext can also add conflict to a scene and help build tension.
External Forces
Heightened emotions intensify the senses, so perceptions are stronger. Fear can induce awareness; love makes things feel more sensual. Show excitement by a stomach churning or throat closing. Remember the other senses too – sounds, tastes, smells. Ears might ring; fear can taste metallic; scents can trigger memories that evoke the emotions.
Emotions can turn a so-so scene into one that stays in a reader’s mind long after the book is read. Making your readers feel what your characters feel is half the battle.

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