In my current work-in-progress, I have characters taking a dangerous journey that tests their stamina and critical-thinking skills. Along the way, they have to come to terms with demons from their pasts, which brings up a slew of different emotions. I’ll be honest with you; it’s tough to find enough ways to show emotion without sounding circular or like a broken record. But it can be done. In this blog post, I thought it’d be fun to give you four tips for how to show emotion in your story.
1. Bringing in the occasional memory. Using these sparingly can tug at readers’ heartstrings. If the hero is mourning the loss of his wife, it may be helpful to tie a memory to his grieving process. For example, if the heroine makes pies, the hero might smell the aroma and be reminded of the first time his late wife made a pie in their new home, how flour covered the floor and streaked her face, but her smile said she was enjoying herself. Bringing in a memory at opportune moments helps readers identify with the characters on a deeper level. **Note: A small smattering of memories is different than long, drawn-out flashbacks, which should only be used at your own risk, in my opinion.
2. Don’t name the emotion. This is one difference between showing and telling. When you can show a character’s emotions spill across the scene, the impact is much stronger than if you simply tell us how a character feels. Showing allows readers to feel the emotion for themselves rather than being told how to feel. For example, it’s much stronger to say, “That’s it! “Julie gritted her teeth and threw open the door. “I’ve had enough.” instead of saying, “That’s it!” Julie said angrily. “I’ve had enough.”
3. Give you characters strong gestures. If you were angry, scared, or excited, how would you respond? Would your response be different in public vs. in private? Give your characters realistic gestures, things that people do in real life. Don’t automatically jump to the first emotion that comes to your mind. For example, not every time your character is angry should he punch something. That would make for a very volatile human being, and we’d soon be unable to suspend our disbelief that he is real. Instead, think of strong as subtle. Look in a mirror and say the lines your character says, using the emotions your character would feel. What do you notice? Do your eyebrows pucker? Do you purse your lips? Do your eyes sharpen and your jaw clench? I bet you can even come up with more creative gestures than that! The point is to give your characters realistic and specific gestures to accompany their emotions.
4. Have reasons for their emotions. People don’t act in certain ways without motivation, so to make emotions believable in your story, readers need to understand what the characters are up against. The higher the stakes, the more intense the emotions. For example, a character will feel different levels of sadness over flunking a test vs. a natural disaster destroying their neighborhood. It all depends on what the character stands to lose. What is riding on that test? Or on their community and the lost possessions? Give your characters motivations for the emotions they feel and readers will find their actions more believable.
What did I miss?
How else can you add emotion to your story?