He felt sad. Panic welled up inside her. Embarrassment tinted his cheeks. As she raised the knife he was overcome with fear. The situation made John jealous.
Sentences like these pop up all the time in the work of aspiring writers. First drafts often overflow with dreadful sentences, where the emotion is conveyed simply by naming it (either using the adjective afraid, panicked, sad, jealous, or the noun fear, panic, sadness, jealousy). In a first draft, this is not a bad thing, after all, according to Terry Pratchet, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” and you don’t want to spend days wasting time on the perfect evocative description of a character’s feelings if you’re not sure that scene is going to make it to draft two.
BUT, when you go back and edit that monster into a polished product, you want to elicit a deep, visceral response from your reader, and to do that, those named emotions have to go.
Naming the emotion, instead of expressing it using one of the techniques outlined below, is a sure way to distance your reader from your characters. There is more than one type/cause/experience of every emotion. Naming the emotion destroys any nuance, leaving a bland, generic taste in the reader’s mouth.
Four techniques for evoking emotion
The good news is that there are alternative techniques to convey emotion, and these techniques, when done well, will bring the reader along on the journey so they experience the same emotions as our poor characters.
- This reminds me of something that happened before
- I only just noticed that…
- Metaphorically speaking
- Bodily experience (only if you have to)
These alternatives convey emotion more powerfully. Let’s take a look at how they work:
1. This reminds me of something that happened before
One of the best ways to convey emotion and let readers connect with your characters is to have your character compare the situation they’re in with something that happened in the past.
How does this feeling of betrayal compare to when my first love broke my heart? How does this lottery win compare with how I felt a week before as I stared at my empty pantry while holding an overdue notice for my rent?
When the zombies attack, I’m going to be pretty scared. How scared? Probably more than the time I had to walk down a dark street at two in the morning, keys clutched in my hand as a make-shift weapon and real and imagined sounds coming from each side.
Compare the event with what has gone before, and the situation will come alive for your reader.
2. I only just noticed that…
Another effective technique for conveying emotion is to place the character in an environment that evokes it. The cold steel of the walls reminds me how unloved I am, the small window with the dull view shows that I feel trapped with no prospect of escape. Point out the foreboding sights, sounds and smells of the surroundings to show the character’s fear. Concentrate on the joyous aspects (sunshine, birdsong, spring, laughter) to show the character’s contentment. This can give the reader a deeper understanding of the setting of the story, while also connecting the reader more strongly with your characters.
3. Metaphorically speaking
Metaphor is a great way of conveying emotion. It can also be linked to the specifics of the character to really bring their voice alive. For example, an electrician could relate a frustrating situation to a tangled circuit-board, a highly organised person could find the situation analogous to working without a to-do list, a child may be frustrated like when Dad denies her ice cream because Mum is home late.
4. Bodily experience
Describing someone’s physical reaction (her heart beat, she tugged at her hair and adjusted her skirt to avoid his gaze, his face erupted in sweat) is a good back up option. It can feel a little cliché (because it’s done so often), and it may not always be clear (people can sweat from fear, nerves, stress, heat…) but it’s a nice way to describe emotion without naming it, especially if done well. Try the above methods, but fall back on this one when you have to.
The Exceptions that prove the rule
Of course, almost all the books we read will have instances where emotions are named, but it’s useful to identify when this happens and why it’s okay:
POV versus non POV characters
For the character whose head you are currently in, you want to avoid naming emotions as much as possible. However, if that character is observing the world and sees Fred looking concerned, it’s fine to say that Fred is concerned (or afraid, happy, or whatever Fred is currently feeling). This is because the feeling is being filtered through your point-of-view character, who is interpreting the facial and action clues from Fred and telling the reader the emotion they believe Fred is experiencing.
It is always best to avoid naming emotions, however you will find named emotions more frequently in young adult fiction. Stylistically, YA fiction is often more “tell-y” (as opposed to “show-y”) than adult fiction.
Getting it out of the way
Sometimes, you don’t want to create a vivid, emotional response in your reader. You just want your reader to know what’s going on, get this part of the story out of the way in order to move on to a more important/more emotionally powerful scene. In which case, naming the emotion is a quick, effective way of conveying information to the reader, without needing that emotional connection.