Nonverbal language is something I take for granted. I’ve always relied on my ability to read people which may contribute to why I am decidedly not a phone person—the lack of body language makes silence that much emptier. That being said, it’s never been a conscious thing that I do, reading people. I see someone frown, I think they’re sad. I hear disappointment in my mother’s tone, I don’t believe the, “It’s fine,” that comes out of her mouth. It’s not a natural thing to pick apart and analyze all of these little nuances that make up the majority of how we communicate with one another and I’ve found that the same has been true for me whenever I sit down to write. I will be the first to admit that dialogue is not my strong suit and I struggle with letting go enough to trust my reader to understand that, when my character says she’s fine, she’s not. Instead, I crowd her words with blatant description. Like so:
“I’m fine,” I said, but it was clear in my tone that I was not, in fact, alright. I waited impatiently for him to believe me and leave.
This example is okay but it’s not great. When I look at it critically, it poses me two questions. 1) How was it clear to the person to whom she is speaking? 2) Was she conscious enough of the change in her tone to point this out in her narrative? Having these two questions in my head while I write and edit has made me even more aware of when I do this in my own writing, which is often. When I’m in the midst of losing my temper but desperately clinging to composure, I am not conscious of the fact that I am failing miserably. I can feel the way my lips purse, holding back the words I want to say so as not to give satisfaction to the one earning my ire. I can feel how my nostrils flare and my cheeks flush and my skin prickles with agitation. If I were writing this as a scene, I wouldn’t be able to write that I was attempting composure unsuccessfully because I can’t know whether or not the person I am mad at notices my little tells that indicate the anger beneath the surface.
“I’m fine,” I said as my skin prickled and the tips of my fingers turned cold. I tried to control my breathing, my nostrils flaring with a sharp inhale. One. Two. Three—Why wasn’t he leaving? Rolling my shoulders back, I tilted my chin forward, conveying more confidence than I felt. See? I’m doing just fine without you.
The two examples essentially say the same thing, that I’m angry but putting on a good face. Writing out the emotion instead of pointing it out, though, allows not only for the reader to begin picturing the scene in their imagination and begin to relate to the character’s feelings and reaction, but it also trusts the reader to understand the character’s body language, their tells. Through the written out emotion, the character becomes more known.
Similarly, body language is not a universal. When your character perceives another’s reaction, there have to be reasons to draw a particular conclusion.
Jason watched Anita. She was obviously mad.
What sort of image does that create for you? Is Anita storming around the room, throwing lamps on the ground, yelling at Jason about the injustice of the situation? If Anita is anything like me, she’s standing there silently seething while trying fruitlessly to kill Jason with her glare. What if we added this into the narrative?
When Jason arrived home later that evening, Anita was sitting in the recliner, gazing out toward the street. She didn’t look at him when he closed the door and the sound of the lock clicking into place seemed amplified by the silence of the room. His wife was always so lively, bubbly, chattering about this neighbor and that but now her stillness was louder than her usual babbling. He thought she’d been fine when he’d told her earlier that he didn’t think her going back to school was practical. It was becoming apparent in the quiet of the house that he had been wrong.
Writing emotion adds layers to your character and tells more about them than pointing out what makes them mad, glad or sad. Most people are going to get mad if someone hits their car in the parking lot of Best Buy on Black Friday but it tells you more about who a person is in the way they go about getting mad. There are a ton of great resources online if you just do an internet search for writing emotion. There are lists upon lists of various physical attributes associated with varying emotions, whether it be visible cues, changes in voice, unique facial expressions, etc. One of the resources I have been enjoying the most has been The Emotional Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, which can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and more. I highly recommend it as a good tool in adding more showing to your characters’ emotional responses!
How do you write emotion? What are your favorite resources?
Until next time, adventurers…