Using Emotions to Show

A guest post by Donna K. Weaver

We hear all the time about how we should show, not tell. Sometimes, especially for the new writer, it's hard to know what that means.

One of the things I like to do, once I have the book about where I want it, is an emotion edit. I search for any time I use an emotion word, so I can evaluate it. Is there a way to show the motion? At this point, I like to pull out one of my favorite resources is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. They are the ladies behind The Bookshelf Muse blog, a wonderful resource for writers.

Ackerman and Puglisi suggest we first decide what the basic emotion is. Is it one that could escalate and increase the tension of the scene? The book breaks down emotions into Physical Signals, Internal Sensations, and Mental Reactions, while touching on long-term and short-term consequences of emotions. The Emotion Thesaurus is not meant to provide cookie-cutter descriptions, but to help you see possibility that you can run with.

The book suggests we take advantage of the setting—the characters are not in a void. What’s there for the characters to interact with—kicking a stone, sweeping papers off a desk, playing with the tie string of a hoodie. Be subtle. If you’re writing a tightly paced scene, you don’t want to slow things down with a lengthy description. Make your words count.

Be wary of the cliché. If you must use a clichéd body response to an emotion, experiment with different way to use it or express it.

Examples (used with permission) of a few possible physical signs of fear:
* Face turning ashen, white, pallid
* Hair standing up on the nape of the neck
* Clammy hand
* Uncontrollable whimpering

You will need to know your characters to know how they are most like to respond. My character Braedon, surgeon and son of a rancher, would have a very different response to a scary situation than would Jori, the broken but drop-dead gorgeous model who wants to be an artist.

Example of telling:
I was afraid to go in the water again.

Example of showing (from A Change of Plans):
Not only was I going to have to face getting out on the water again, I was also going to have to do it in a homemade boat. A knot in my stomach joined the one in my throat. What a choice. Stay here or go out with the sharks. “How will we get past the waves?”

So, go look at a scene in your current work in progress. Find an emotion and experiment with ways to show that emotion without ever saying the word.

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Donna K. Weaver has always loved reading and creating stories and has been ever entertained. A Navy brat. A U.S. Army veteran. An avid cruiser, she’s sailed the Pacific four times. A Shorei Kempo Karate black belt, she lives in Utah with her husband. They have six children, eight grandchildren.

The release of Donna's book, A Change of Plans, is being celebrated with a Rafflecopter give away!  Listen to the excerpt below and enter for a chance to win a free copy of the audiobook.


3 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for having me over!

  2. Excellent advice, Donna. I have the Emotional Thesaurus, and it’s a great resource.

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