Lesson #90: Describing Emotion

In Lessons 88 and 89, we discussed description in scenes and describing action. Now, let’s take a look at describing emotion.

Emotion is a significant tool writers can use in their stories. Emotion in the characters and situations can help draw readers into the story in a personal way. However, using emotion (and namely: in portraying emotion, in describing emotion) properly is difficult. To begin this lesson, we’ll cover some of the simple and handy-dandy rules to help describe emotion in the best ways possible:

The first and most significant precept to remember in describing emotion is R.U.E. — Resist the Urge to Explain!

A lot of people use prepositional phrases in their creative writing, such as: in fear, with anxiety, in anger, etc. These are telling. We don’t need them! You will want to paint the picture so well that the emotion is portrayed to readers, rather than told to them. For example,

  • Incorrect: “She laughed with merriment.”
  • Correct: “She laughed. Merriment came easily when she was around Kara.”
  • Incorrect: “He clenched his fists in anger.”
  • Correct: “Why was she so impossible? Sarah never understood anything. Never.”

This also brings readers into the wonderful folds of Deep POV. We get INSIDE the characters instead of being told things ABOUT the characters.

Another “mindless” trick writers use to describe emotion in a story is by using “trying to” or “attempting to.”

For example: “Attempting to get his words out of her head, she thought about something else.”

First, this is impossible. She cannot “attempt” to do something and then accomplish it. She either does it, or she doesn’t.

Furthermore, this is telling. “Trying” and “attempting” are weak descriptors which bog down a story and can always be replaced to make the story stronger.

For example, rather than “attempting to get his words out of her head, she thought about something else,” let’s try something along the lines of: Those words… “worthless, burdensome, ignorant…” She couldn’t get his voice out of her head. No, no, no. It wasn’t true. Jesus loved her. Jesus told her she was beautiful. Jesus – the Son of God – died for her.

Avoid using “try/trying” and “attempt/attempting” in any and all areas of your story, but ESPECIALLY in describing emotion or emotional scenes!

The last major mistake writers use to describe emotion poorly is simply telling rather than showing. Readers like it when they can dive into the character’s head and live the story with them. But this is where the real art of writing comes in; extreme measures must be taken by the writer to ensure that the narration and description are tight, powerful, and important. Look at these examples:

  • “His anxiety grew. He needed to get out of this God-forsaken country before the cops got him. If they found him he’d be dead meat.”
  • “His stomach twirled within him. Fuzzy, blurry shapes danced around his eyes. What should he do? The cops may be coming for him. Where could he go? There was no way out of this God-forsaken country. And what if they found him? He’d be dead meat for sure.”

The first example is telling. The second example is showing.

Telling is the “normal” speech of writers. We want to TELL a story. But the difference between an okay story and a great story is the quality of immersion the reader can get. Show versus Tell (SvT) has really shot through the roof the past ten years or so; some publishers won’t even look at a manuscript if they see much telling. While some readers don’t mind the telling, most people (especially now-a-days) prefer to read a book where they are engaged in the setting, story, characters, and conflict. SO… Instead of saying “Mark was angry”, SHOW that he’s angry. Are his fists clenched? Does he narrow his eyes? What does the anger look like, feel like, taste like, smell like, sound like? Does he get jumpy? Do the little things (a car horn honking, for example) irk him? Does his favorite meal taste disgusting? Does he think in short, succinct sentences, or does he think in long, drawn out, argumentative sentences? Everyone is different when they’re angry. So, show me what that looks like for this particular character. The same goes for any emotion – sadness, joy, confusion, disgust, fear, etc.

How will you describe emotion? Let us know in the comments!

With pen to paper,



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