Character,  Dialogue

Showing Emotion in Scene

“Hiya Lizard! What are some good ways to show feelings other than describing the mouth/eyes? I’ve barely written anything and I already feel as if I’m overusing these as easy ways to show feelings.”

While there’s nothing wrong with mentioning a character’s eyes or mouth to show their emotions, if that is your go-to move, you run the risk of having your characters feel a little flat.

Someone told me once to imagine my characters on stage. What are they doing during a scene? In a play, you can’t have characters just standing around in conversation, or maybe you can, but it’s less interesting. Having your characters move through a space is more exciting. Even small actions can tell us a lot about who your characters are.

Writing with body language.

Describing a character’s eyes and mouth is kind of a start when it comes to writing body language, but body language is so much more than just facial expressions. Showing just eyes and mouths with give you about the same amount of emotional range as an emoji. A full body portrait of your characters will give you a lot more variation and subtlety in expression.

So let’s look at one of my go-to examples: imagine your characters around a dinner table. Someone who’s angry, might stab at their pork chop. Someone bored might be playing with their fork. Someone feeling flirty might search for their lover’s foot beneath the table. This is a way simple example, but you get the picture. Without anything about conversation or what’s happening, just by how the characters are acting, you have an idea of who they are and what they’re feeling.

Not what was said, but how it was said.

The other way emotion can be conveyed is a little bit more “tricky.” It’s not just a matter of including details in a scene or excluding them, but conveying an attitude through telling the story. Whether you’re writing in first person or third, the way you tell the story can convey a certain kind of feeling.

Telling it in first person

The first example that comes to mind is The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield is all attitude all the time. Right from the start, he tells his story casting emotion over every situation and encounter he has. You know how he feels about other people because he doesn’t hold back. Even when he is not so explicitly calling someone a “phonie” his thoughts about each different character casts them in a light that tells you exactly how he feels about them.

Going beyond that, how Holden talks goes beyond just telling you about what he thinks of other people, but about his situation and his place. The book opens:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all – I’m not saying that – but they’re also touchy as hell. (The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)

So even just in this opening, you get a little bit about how Holden thinks of his parents – specifically, how much he thinks they care about image. He calls them “touchy” and then again “touchy as hell” to emphasize it. In the way he is saying he doesn’t want to talk about his parents, we’re also learning quite a bit about what he thinks of them.

Telling it in third person

This also works in third person. Here’s a passage from a favorite short story of mine, “The Hortlak” by Kelly Link:

All during his shift, Eric listened for Charley’s car. First she went by on her way to the shelter and then, during her shift, she took the dogs out driving, past the store first in one direction and then back again, two or three times in one night, the lights of her headlights picking out the long, black gap of the Ausible Chasm, a bright slap across the windows of the All-Night. Eric’s heart lifted whenever a car went past.

Without much expressly said, you get a sense of Eric’s feelings about Charley here. He listens for her car and feels a quick flash of hope every time he sees the headlights of a passing car.

This is one short example, but there are so many others out there. If you’re ever struggling, close-reading a passage from an old favorite is always my first strategy. How is the author showing character? How do we learn the thoughts and feelings of this character in these few short paragraphs? A good book will answer these questions within a scene or even just a few sentences.

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