There are several ways a writer can depict physical emotion in a story’s narrator. Absolutely, Positively Not... by David LaRochelle and The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman will be used to exemplify some of the biggest problems when showing emotion in fiction and also provide better examples of how to do it. A few particular emotions including anxiety, confusion, excitement, fear, hostility, restlessness, and tenderness can be depicted especially well when following these tips.
One of the biggest problems when naming a character’s emotion is to use clichés like “green with envy” and “butterflies in her stomach.” Ann Hood, in Creating Character Emotions, says we need to find a fresh way to evoke jealousy or anxiety or any emotion, one that jumps out at readers, fits perfectly and stays with them long after the story has ended (8). She says to push past the “pounding heart.” Both LaRochelle and Cushman find unique ways to exemplify emotions in order to avoid the cliché.
In Cushman’s case, details incorporated into the emotional description also relate and tie into the storyline. For example, she writes, “My heart pounded like a Gene Krupa drum solo” (100) which is a reference to the time period of the book, the 1950’s. Also referencing the time period, Cushman writes, “My heart fell into my saddle shoes” (177) and “I shook my head, unable to speak for the lump the size of a Chevrolet in my throat” (183). These descriptions efficiently do double-duty by both referencing the emotion and the time period of the book; a very nice touch if the writer is able to do it.
LaRochelle also invents some original descriptions for his character’s emotions. “I was suddenly overcome with the urge to dive beneath the refreshment table and disintegrate into tiny subatomic particles” (42-43) is a great way to let the reader know that he wanted to hide. Rather than saying, “I was nervous,” he uses, “I quivered like a bread crumb in front of a vacuum” (51). Instead of the over used, “my heart pounded” LaRochelle comes up with “My heart kicked into overdrive” (28). These are all refreshing ways to say those common phrases we have read a thousand times before in fiction. “My jaw dropped open like a dying walleye” (98) is a subtle way to express amazement without saying he was shocked. “The hockey players hung their heads like scolded puppies” (184) clearly lets the reader see how ashamed the hockey players are through their posture.
To go further, Browne and King, in Self Editing for Fiction Writers, say it is better to show why your characters feel the way they do rather than saying how they feel (9). A simple action can give your readers a far better feel for a character’s emotion than by simply describing it. In addition, writers often repeat themselves by stating the emotion to make sure that the reader gets the point. Both of the example books include errors of this sort. LaRochelle uses, “My shoulders dropped three inches in relief” (29), “I felt my face grow warm with pride” (43), and “My mother’s head and shoulders collapsed in relief, like a sock puppet minus its hand” (168), all statements of the emotion after giving a physical description that could have stood alone. Likewise, Cushman makes the same error. “...her face flushed with embarrassment...” (67), “My face burned with embarrassment and anger” (187), “I was so relieved and excited that the words just tumbled out of me” (212), and “I looked down at my lap, embarrassed” (83). If good dialogue can state the emotion, leave out the added explanation. If the writer constantly states the emotion of the character, then the character never comes alive.
Also, labels like “anger” are not an expression of an emotion (Browne 81). “And then, unexpectedly, I was angry. Make that furious” (LaRochelle, 155). LaRochelle both uses an adverb and labels anger. The experience of anger is not felt. There must be some sort of description of the anger without actually using the word itself. Instead, express the emotion through thoughts of the character. Thoughts are an actual expression of the character’s specific emotion (Browne 82). Thoughts can also express an internal struggle leading to another emotion. If LaRochelle had said something like, “What? I couldn’t believe she said that. The nerve. How could anyone say that about me?” it would give the reader an idea of his frame of mind without stating the emotion of anger.
Another way to show physical emotion is to use concrete details to help a reader understand the emotion (Hood 9) and lead the reader to the right place. Try using props to suggest how a character feels, such as shredded tissues in someone’s hand or mascara smears under one’s eyes (Hood, 14). LaRochelle successfully uses this technique throughout his novel. “I stood up and punched my pillow” (16), “The yearbook slid between my knees and hit the floor” (80), “I kicked one of the snow shovels leaning against the wall and three fell over in a clattering chain reaction” (133), “I climbed onto the bus and slumped into a seat” (134), “I threw myself across the screen and hit the power switch in the back” (176), “I was in no mood to read how the military could turn me into a real man, so I grabbed the stack and slammed it hard into my wastebasket” (187) and “The paper clip snapped in two. She set the pieces on her desk and looked for something else she could mangle. She settled on squeezing the arms of her chair” (192) are all examples where props are used.
Indirect action, an action that avoids the larger action, can similarly evoke emotion (Hood 16) without naming the emotion. It allows the reader to piece together the character’s emotional puzzle and keeps the writer from stating the obvious. It is a fresh way to avoid the clichés. Both authors use this trick. For example, “I stomped in puddles all the way home” (Cushman 114), shows the anger without stating it or having the character scream with rage. “She dropped the fistful of socks and clutched her chest” (LaRochelle 82), shows a shocked or unbelieving reaction and works better than “her jaw dropped”, while “My mother squeezed her eyes shut and placed her fingers alongside her temples as if she were getting a headache" (LaRochelle 165) shows a type of avoidance of the issue or of trying to remain calm.
A writer can depict physical emotion of the characters in several ways, as discussed above. An author can (1) avoid clichés by inventing original descriptions to express physical emotions, (2) provide a simple action to show the emotion and not repeat an emotion shown through the description, (3) use concrete details and props, (4) use the thoughts of a character to express the emotion rather than labeling it, and (5) use indirect action. If an author uses these subtle techniques, it is possible for him to insinuate emotion through character posture, expression and mannerism and avoid stating the emotions directly.
Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Cleaver, Jerry. Immediate Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Cushman, Karen. The Loud Silence of Francine Greens. New York: Clarion, 2006.
Hood, Ann. Creating Character Emotions. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998.
Larochelle, David. Absolutely Positively Not...New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2005.
This essay was written by Jennifer Sommer in 2007 as a requirement toward the MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults.