Spiderweb of Understanding, a Puny Guide to Writing Emotions

writing emotions

This in-depth article on writing emotions was written by Ramona Darabant.

So you made up a character you are fond of? Well done!

Let your character come to life. You know the drill: a face, a body, a CV, a past, jobs, families, friends, past lovers, nick names (cool and nasty ones), pets, favorite drinks, tattoos, scars, allergies and whatnot. The being of the character forms gradually in front of your mind’s eye. Mannerisms give a vivid stroke. Borrow them from people you know, if you must.

Almost there! Your character is fleshed out, but still a bit flat. Facts and habits do not add up to a realistic figure. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. The magic potion to add depths, is labeled – no, not unicorn tears – the character’s emotions.

Make the character damaged goods. Give them anxiety, traumas, awkwardness, short fuses, disgust with themselves/the world, or melancholy. Give them contradicting feelings. It’s even better, if you give them your contradicting feelings. Why? If it’s your heart throbbing with your past’s poison and hurt, your writing voice becomes raw, natural and authentic.

This is the delicate spiderweb of understanding between the reader and your character (and you as a writer).  That’s when the bonding begins. This fundamental comprehension of interactive emotional responses is the key to a caring reader.

e·mo·tion (ĭ-mō’shən), noun

  1. any strong agitation of the feelings actuated by experiencing love,hate, fear, etc., and usually accompanied by certain physiological changes, as increased heartbeat or respiration, and often overt manifestation, as crying or shaking.
  2. in Science and Medicine: A psychological/mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort and is sometimes accompanied by physiological changes; a feeling
  3. Word Origin and History1570s, “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation,” from Middle French émotion(16c.), from Old French emouvoir “stir up” (12c.), from Latin emovere“move out, remove, agitate,” from ex- “out” + movere “to move”. Sense of “strong feeling” is first recorded 1650s; extended to any feeling by 1808.

Thanks Thesaurus, that’s kind of helpful. You noticed? The semantic use of the words emotion and feeling? Are they the same thing? Are they interchangeable? Not exactly.

The Difference: Emotion, Feeling

Antonio D’Amasio, professor of neuroscience at The University of California and author of several books on the subject, explains it as: “Feelings are mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli. (The order of such events is: I am threatened, experience fear, and feel horror.)” – (from Thebestbrainpossible, they have lots of interesting stuff.)

The Lowest Common Denominator

If we talk about emotions, we have to talk about the twelve core emotions common in, and understood by, all humans. It’s our inbuilt basic software for recognizing, expressing emotions, our fundamental tool for communication (and deception).

Interest, Joy, Surprise, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, Contempt, Self-Hostility, Fear, Shame, Shyness, and Guilt.  Isn’t that a good starting point? Twelve emotions everybody has and equally understands.

So, how do we perceive these emotions?

We observe. For those who observe for breakfast, try cold reading.

The facial play, the body language, the tension in the voice tells us far more than the actual spoken information. And that’s the way to write it.

These three components (face, body, voice) give you a whole array of descriptive information to  paint a suitable picture. You might feel tempted to carefully describe everything, or hinting too much. DON’T! Pick one or two – at most three – leading indicators, from different modalities, and let the reader work out the rest.

Why the bother?

Why is it important to have, and to understand emotions? Events occur. We perceive them. We process them. They have meaning to us, depending on our temperament, mood, personality, and motivation. Eventually we react, or act: emotionally, physically and intellectually. Molded out of our brain, our characters do the same.

Show, don’t tell. A practical guide:

  • Don’t use emotion words. 

    We usually call a spade a spade. That’s good in efficient conversations in business, at work, but it’s painful in a short story. Actually in any story/poem/song whatsoever. You lose your emotional momentum and impact on the reader. Is your character angry, happy or sad?

    • Example: ““He fell all by himself. Clumsy, like a child.” The other man on his right and the policeman, I gave my forms to, laughed. The smell of ethanol and urine hit me. It was a roaring filthy laugh, a laugh you laugh at a salt covered foaming snail, or at a cringing burning spider. The man on his left pulled a lighter out of his pocket. Benny whined and jerked back as far as he could. I had to swallow hard, clench my teeth, so no reaction escaped me. ” – from “The Lion Roars“, part 2, by Ramona Darabant
  • Aaaand Action!

    To show how a character feels, use his/her actions. It’s maybe the easiest way. Orient yourselves on what you do, when you are angry, in love, sad, or scared. Observe others coping with their emotions. If the character is angry, show tight lips, pale face and hands balled to fists. You can try sudden forceful (unbalanced) movements too, or heavy breathing.

    • E: “From somewhere outside, they dragged Benny in, hands cuffed behind his back. He stumbled forward, face pale and bright, eyes wide, shining with terror and relief. He was scared to death. From the stains on his clothes, I could tell he had wet his pants. This was, what a man on death row looks like. Nausea greeted me. God! I had to push that thought out of my head fast.” – from “The lion roars ” part 2, by Ramona Darabant
  • Perception in Writing Emotions

    Usually everyone tries to simplify complex information. We filter the unusual, the not fitting information out to create meaning. Emotions, feelings change the way we see the world, the same way. They put filters between the world and our eyes, they change the lighting and the sound. Suddenly we notice details, we never had before.

    • E:”Thick grey clouds rush down the western slope of the mountain. They soften the lights and the sounds. The wind turns the air in the tea house cold and damp. Bolin worries about the pain the coming season will bring for his father, and closes the screen door. The crickets chirp into the clacking of the whispering bamboos, but they grow tired rapidly and stop. The governor sits by the fire, lighting his pipe, listening to the hints coming from the garden. Bolin prepares the cups and the tea, pours the hot water. He hands one cup to his father, but doesn’t seem to notice the growing silence.” – from “Tiger, burning…“, part 2, by Ramona Darabant
  • Setting

    Easily applicable to show the mental and psychological state of your character. It mirrors the feelings, the general mood. Prepare the stage for the plot.

    • E: “I stared out of the living room window. Snowing. I didn’t bother to switch the lights on. No need for electric light chasing away the shadows in the room. It couldn’t chase away the shadows that mattered most. The grey wooly darkness of the late winter afternoon bloomed forth into the room. My old tattered shelves went up to the ceiling. The spines of the books crowded the space on the planks. They sucked up the rest of the light seeping in.” – from “The Stain“, part 1, by Ramona Darabant
  • Dialogue

    Speech patterns, pacing and the choice of words change with the emotions the character is experiencing. If the character is angry, the words are strong, mostly correct and sharp, the pacing fast, the sentences short and crisp. Words behave like bullets, hitting the target. Try to match the racing heart with the racing exchange of verbal slaps.

    • E: ““Your boss says, you are a capable man. A bit soft, but capable nevertheless. We’ll see about that.” He looks at his manicured nails with interest. He nodded a tiny bit, and the men shoved Benny into my back. I felt him bump into me, grab for my jacket and going down unto his knees. The man chuckled and waved a hand. “So collect your garbage and go.”” – from “The Lion Roars“, part 2, by Ramona Darabant.
  • Now overdo it!

    Humans feel. They go over the top. They are fascinating and illogical creatures. In highly emotional situations, positive and negative feelings simply override the intrinsic logic of a character. Be aware, that this also means that the character has a low ability to think things through. Make them kiss harder, break down sobbing, kick, scream, throw and break stuff, knock out some teeth.

  • PRACTICE! Practice, practice. Go do it now. Go, gogogogo.

Author: Ramona Darabant

R. C. Darabant was born Romania and lives now near Vienna, where she works as a family physician. When she isn’t working, she writes poetry, flash fiction and short stories. She recharges her batteries during storms and night strolls. In her stories, there is a distinct lack of happy endings. It’s not pathological, rest assured, she had that checked.

What are your thoughts on this?