Description 911: Over Expressed Emotions

Because this blog is all about flexing our descriptive skills, I wanted to touch on something I see from time to time when I critique: too much emotional showing.

Emotions can be the most difficult to convey (this is why Becca and I built the Emotion Thesaurus!) Not only do we need to express without telling, we have to show the emotion in a fresh way, make sure it feels genuine and have it match the character's expressive range. Add that to highlighting action and minimizing internal sensations and thoughts? It's a lot to juggle.

Common ways to show emotion:

Physical Action (beats): gestures, movement, ticks & tells that express emotion
Internal Sensations: bodily reaction known only to the POV character
Thoughts: reactive & emotionally charged thoughts caused by stimulus
Dialogue: revealing emotion verbally (and sometimes showing by what is not said!) 
POV Narrative: internal musings/reflection delivered by a POV character toward a situation or setting

A balance of these elements creates a satisfying window into the character's emotional state, but too much causes an overload of sensory information. It slows the pace, creates melodrama and disrupts the reader's belief in both the character and the events unfolding.

Over-expressing occurs when we try too hard to reinforce an emotional state to the reader. Here's an example of how this can happen. First, we need an emotion. Let's go with GUILT.

Mrs Henderson lifted her day planner and rifled through the papers on her desk. "I don't understand--the stapler was here right before lunch. Did someone use it and forget to put it back?"

  Amanda slid down in her seat, heat burning through her. Stupid! Why did I take it?


A very simple situation--not a lot is needed to get into Amanda's emotional state, right? Internal and external cues work together.

So what if I did this instead:

Amanda fumbled her library book open and shoved her nose deep into the pages so she wouldn't have to look at the teacher.

Okay, again, this works.

Or this:

Amanda shifted in her seat, grazing her knee on the bottom of her desk. What if the teacher knew? What if she asked everyone to pull out their desk trays?

Yep, still showing guilt, blending external cues and thoughts, which gives her guilt a paranoid edge.

Now...what if we put it all together?


Amanda fumbled her library book open and shoved her nose deep into the pages so she wouldn't have to look at the teacher. Shifting about, she slid down in her seat and her knee grazed the bottom of her desk where she'd hid the stapler. Heat burned through her. What if the teacher knew? What if she asked everyone to pull out their desk trays? Stupid! Why did I take it?

WAAAY too much showing for this simple scenario and a medium level emotion, isn't it? Can you imagine if I'd chosen a situation rife with stronger emotions, like a character running for their life or witnessing a murder?

The trick to finding a good balance of emotional showing is remembering that Readers are smart. They will pick up on the emotion without it being hammered into them. A few strong bits of showing is almost always better than a weighty clump of detail.

Like all areas of writing, this gets easier with PRACTICE. As you hone your Writer's Intuition, you become a better judge of just how many cues are needed to get the character's emotion across. Trust in your showing skills!

41 comments:

Pk Hrezo said...

Excellent points! These are areas we can trim, trim, trim during revisions.

Anne Gallagher said...

Just what I needed today, thanks so much. Now I have to pull apart that scene that's been giving me so much trouble.

Laura Pauling said...

That's why I love reading - to see how these amazing writers pull off all the emotion. Margie Lawson's course was great - empowering character's emotions. The time you spend on showing the emotion should be in direct correlation to the importance of the scene. Balance is key. And also very hard!!! Great post.

Robin_Lucas said...

Thanks! My Achilles heel is making my characters always smile.
He smiled, she smiled, they smiled... ugh!!!!!!!!!!

Bluestocking said...

When I write a first draft it's usually devoid of emotion. Then I revise to add that element in. Then I revise again because usually I put TOO much in and have to weed out the emotional overload. Great post!

Lisa Gail Green said...

Ha! Great examples! Funny thing - I sometimes UNDER-do it. I've been asked in revisions to add when I thought I'd been clear in showing! *blushes* Practice, practice, practice!

M.P. McDonald said...

Excellent post! I try to do the body language thing, but sometimes it makes me adult male character seem to be squirming like a newly potty trained 3 year old.

Nicole MacDonald said...

yes reading a book at the moment that over describes everything - makes for very frustrating and stilted reading *grrr*

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Mysti said...

Yes! Yes! This is a lesson I continue to learn over and over again, and you've shown it very well.

A valued critter of mine said "Trust your reader!" Great advice!

Matthew Rush said...

This is a great point. I think when we start out as writers we tend to feel the need to lead our reader around by the hand more, but as we grow, and begin to get used to hearing the same kind of feedback, we realize just how smart our readers are. A little goes a long way.

Bish Denham said...

So simply explained! Thanks Angela.

mooderino said...

I think you make a good point about the last example being too much, but personally I felt the first two were a little on the long side also.

"Amanda fumbled her library book open and shoved her nose deep into the pages."

Isn't it already clear why she does that from the context?

Holly Ruggiero said...

Very good point.

Angela Ackerman said...

Yes the first two could be stronger--this was just a quickie illustration of the technique. Rightly so I could have left that portion off--I guess I didn't simply because I didn't repeat the teacher's opening statement that leads to her action. Thanks!

Girl Friday said...

Such a good post, thank you. I sometimes worry about having too many beats and gestures when I'm trying to avoid using adverbs in dialogue, it's a tricky balance.

Amanda said...

Great examples. I think this is an area where writers tend to overuse cliche. In my early drafts, if nothing fresh immediately comes to mind I will write "FIX CLICHE!", and come back to it later.

The Golden Eagle said...

You make a great point here!

Bethany Mattingly said...

Wonderful post. It's hard finding the balance between not enough and too much.

M.B. West said...

Great post! I agree with others, there is no need to "show" our readers everything. They are intelligent people, they can figure a few things out themselves, plus you have to give the reader room to visualize the specific world he/she wants from the book. Too much detail can wreck the joy of reading.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Excellent demonstration. You make it look so simple. :-)

MG Higgins said...

Excellent! Very helpful for me right now. I have problems finding that balance.

Terri Tiffany said...

Loved this!! You are one of my favorite sites:)

Kelly said...

Excellent examples, Angela!

tracikenworth said...

Great blog!! Emotions are a delicate balance. I will have to watch this for sure in my own writing.

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks everyone for their comments! Emotion has to be one of the most difficult things to nail down. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

Angela

nutschell said...

Awesomely helpful post! This is definitely one thing we writers have to be aware of, especially when we go into our revision/editing phase. glad I chanced upon this blog. have a fabulous week!

Deb said...

I'l be reading this and the comments again (and again!). Thanks for this!

Christina Farley said...

Great examples. I also love how you are pulling out that internal dialogue too.

Michelle Gregory said...

apparently you have mental telepathy. i was just wondering about this today.

Marion Sipe said...

What a great post!

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Fantastic post Angela! I love how you mix easy-to-follow theory with clear examples.

Thanks for all you do for the writing community. Your blog is such an incredible resource!

Martina

Lenny Lee* said...

wow this is real good for me cause i tell stuff lots when i could show it with some good words. my cp just said that on the wip shes been critiquing. im saving this post for sure. thanks miss angela!
...hugs from lenny

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

So true! Excellent post--thank you! And it is about developing those writer's instincts, isn't it?

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Brilliant post, Angela. This is something I'm getting better at. I used to focus more on the internal sensations, but then would get stuck using the same one again and again (obviously before I discovered your blog). ;)

Brent Wescott said...

Do you need more compliments? Let me know and I'll...wait, do you have a compliment thesaurus entry?
I love this post because on first drafts I go way over board with the smiling and gazing and laughing and just looking in order to get emotion across. This totally helps in revision. Thanks.
It Just Got Interesting

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great points! I think it's really important to write in a journal how you are feeling when you are going through something that is emotional in some way. Then you can refer to it when you are writing and one of your characters is in a similar situation. I wish wish wish I had my diaries from when I was a teenager.

Beth said...

Great examples. It's a fine balance between giving enough information and going over the top.

Tahlia said...

Balance is always the key. I was guilty of overwriting when I started, now if I find more than one cue for a situation, I usually delete one of them.

erica m. chapman said...

Oh good stuff here! I totally agree with these examples ;o) Great post!!

Carrie said...

This is definitely something we should all keep in mind. Sometimes, when I'm reading, I just want to scream, "I get it! Enough already!" Great examples! :)

Theresa Milstein said...

The heat burn over guilt made me laugh. Too much over the top, especially in romance. Don't beat us over the head! I'll try to refrain from beating anyone else in the head with my WIP.

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