Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. Do you ever struggle with describing a character’s emotions or how they would react in a particular situation? I do. Even though I have several reference books, at times I feel as if I keep repeating the same thing—an arched brow for surprise, a pricking sensation for fear, slamming door when they’re angry, etc.
I’m in the middle of editing a manuscript and have given a lot of thought to how to better describe character reactions. I call my little formula, Picture It, Portray It, Pen It.
Every novel, every chapter, every scene starts with an idea. You may spend weeks brainstorming. Some writers use a journal or a notebook to jot down ideas. Others use a computer program. This is where planners begin their outline. It’s also the time to conduct any necessary research. Finally, it’s time to write.
Imagine an artist beginning with a blank canvas. A new writing project is much the same. No matter what writing software you use, the first thing you see is a blank screen. Like the artist, this is the time to fill in the basics.
If you are an edit as you go writer, the most important thing is getting those ideas from your head (or notes) into your first draft. I can’t tell you how many times I start to write, then stop to edit a sentence and forget what I planned to say in the next one. (No comments on that last part being age-related.)
The first draft is written. Whether you wait to edit the entire book or do it a scene or chapter at a time, you’ll likely find a lot of telling and not showing.
I write dialogue-heavy. While it’s is a good way to move the story forward, but sometimes I find my scene seems bland or my characters one-dimensional. Fortunately for me, I have some fantastic critique partners that not only point out my errors but they also challenge me to move to new depths.
And sometimes what I think is one of my best scenes is actually boring. I haven’t added enough details to set the scene or showed enough emotion with a character or characters. I turn to reference books but even then, I feel like my writing is “meh.”
How do we make the scene come alive? One way I’ve used is to portray the scene. That’s right. Act it out. Pretend you’re on the set of a movie. Put yourself inside the character’s head.
How would you react to learning your best friend betrayed you? What if you sensed someone was stalking you?
Warning. You might want to do this when no one else is around or risk being thought of as crazy.
You can also draw on real-life experiences. Think of the time when you walked across the stage to receive your diploma. Remember when you got your first car. What thoughts were going through your head during a job interview or the first day on a new job?
A third way is to resort to actual movies or television shows. Recently, I needed to describe a character’s emotions when she learned her husband had been murdered. I thought of the award-winning film In the Heat of the Night where Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger informed Lee Grant’s character of such an event. Grant’s portrayal was realistic—shock, disbelief, maybe a little denial. I drew from that scene.
Be sure not to plagiarize any words or write the scene verbatim. Use it only for reference.
Now it’s time to write the edits. Below is an example from my own work.
I went from something like this (all telling):
Ruth remained silent—too much in shock to cry or show any emotion.
To this (showing):
She sank into a chair, her hands shaking, and her stomach in knots. A million scenarios raced through her mind, searching to find an explanation for Juan’s demeanor and the presence of a chaplain.
Other than the obvious.
Juan started to speak. “I’m sorry—”
“No. Don’t say it. Not now.” Ruth stood, then began to pace the floor, her hands clenched. When she reached the fireplace, she rested her head against the mantle.
It goes without saying that showing takes more words than telling. But in the end, you’ll have a much stronger and captivating story. What techniques have you used to capture emotion in a scene? Please share in the comments.