This post may contain affiliate links for products and services I recommend. If you make a purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission. Read the full disclosure here
Adding emotion to your writing is a crucial element in writing a great book. Think about it: would you enjoy a book that is well-written, has a good story structure, but no emotion? We want to feel when we read. So, we need to make sure our characters feel as well, so our readers can empathize and feel with them.
How to show emotion
But how do you go about showing emotions? One way is, of course, to tell exactly how a character feels. That would go something like this:
The enemy army was advancing fast. Grayden felt terrified.
“It’s a larger army than I thought,” he said to Jordan, next to him.
“We can take them,” Jordan said with confidence, even though he was scared.
However, you can imagine, this might become boring after too many repetitions. Besides, the words terrified or scared, or happy for that matter, might mean different things to different people. Maybe my definition of scared is closer to terrified, while your definition of scared is more like anxiousness. Do you see how this can get confusing?
There are, luckily, many more interesting ways to show emotions. We can do this be describing internal sensations, showing physical signals and behaviors, and mental responses. Behavior also changes when emotions are suppressed, or when they’re acute or long-term (think about someone who has been stressed for a month, compared to someone who has been stressed for only a few hours; they react differently to situations).
What kind of signals, sensations, and thoughts to use?
But it’s tough to come up with these signals, behaviors, sensations, and thoughts for each emotion. That is why I recommend The Emotion Thesaurus (click here for some samples). This book is such a life-saver! I use it every time I edit a scene. I will go over the scene, identify the emotions my characters are feeling, check the thesaurus, and add the appropriate behaviors and sensations.
So, what would this look like? Check out the example below for the emotion fear.
1. Physical signals and behaviors
Using physical signals and behaviors to show emotion is a great tool to use, especially for non-POV characters. Unless you’re writing in an omniscient viewpoint, you can’t access the internal sensations or mental responses from these characters; thus, you need to show what these characters are feeling.
In the case of fear, the book gives a lot of examples (36 of them), so I will limit it to 15 examples from the book:
- The face turning ashen, white, or pallid
- Body odor and cold sweats
- Wiping clammy hands on one’s clothing to rid them of sweat
- Trembling lips and chin
- Tendons standing out in the neck
- Veins beating a visible pulse beneath the skin
- Elbows pressing into the sides, making one’s body as small as possible
- Freezing, feeling rooted to the spot
- An inability to speak
- Rapid blinking
- Tight shoulders
- Staring but not seeing
- Eyes that are shut or crying
- Hands jammed into armpits or self-hugging
- One’s breaths bursting in and out
2. Internal sensations
If you do have access to the internal world of your character, you can also showcase internal sensations. Well-placed visceral reactions can be very powerful.
For fear, the book mentions 8 internal sensations
- shakiness in the limbs (causing increased clumsiness)
- A racing heartbeat that causes pains in the chest
- the sensation of one’s hair lifting on the arms and nape of the neck
- Dizziness and weakness in the legs and knees
- A loosening of the bladder
- Holding one’s breath, or gulping down breaths to stay quiet
- A stomach that feels rock hard
- Hypersensitivity to touch and sound
3. Mental responses
Likewise, if you have access to the internal world of your character, you can also show emotion by how the character responds mentally. But even when you don’t have access to the internal world, you can still show the actions that are consequences of these mental responses.
Some options for fear are:
- wanting to flee or hide due to a sense of impending doom
- the sensation of things moving too quickly to process
- Images of what-could-be flashing through the mind
- Flawed reasoning
- Jumping to a course of action without thinking things through
- A skewed sense of time
- Mistrusting one’s own judgment (when it comes to safety and security)
4. Acute or long-term responses
As I said before, emotions can look very different when someone’s had them for a long time, or when they suddenly arise. So, in your writing, it’s good to make this distinction.
- Uncontrollable trembling
- Exhaustion or insomnia
- The heart giving out
- Panic attacks, phobias, or depression
- Substance abuse
- Withdrawing from others
- Tics (a repetitive grimace, a head twitch, talking to oneself, etc.)
- Resistance to pain from rushing adrenaline
5. Signs of suppression
And, of course, when someone suppresses a specific emotion, that can also lead to different reactions. If your character wants to act like everything’s fine, they will give off different signals.
If you’re hiding your fear, you might:
- denying fear through diversion or changing topics
- Turning away from the cause of fear
- Attempting to keep one’s voice light
- A watery smile that’s forced into place
- Masking fear with a reactive emotion (anger or frustration) or showing false bravado
- Overindulgence in a habit (nail biting, lip biting, scratching the skin raw, etc.)
- Telling jokes in a voice that cracks.
So there you have it! These are all different ways you can showcase the emotion fear. Quite a lot, eh? And many that don’t involve the standard description such as a rapid heartbeat, or sweating. It’s easy to pick some and insert it in your story to add emotion. Don’t go overboard with it, though. No one needs five different behaviors, a mental response, and two internal sensations to describe one emotion.
The Nr. 1 Resource for Writing Emotion
Needless to say, The Emotion Thesaurus is a must for your writing. And, if you get the e-book, it’s not even that expensive. It’s a good investment in any case. They also give writing tips on how to write emotions, with examples, and for each emotion, they also say what emotion it would escalate or deescalate to, and power verbs.
Get The Emotion Thesaurus on Amazon