Emotions – physical reactions
Psychiatrists agree that we, as human beings, copy others fairly easily. We copy other people’s emotions or physical sensations, even though it’s all in our heads. It forms the basis for many psychological abnormalities.
However, you as a writer can use this psychological phenomenon to your advantage.
“When you understand the feelings of one of the characters in the moving picture, you are copying his tensions. You are feeling in yourself something of what he feels in the fictional situation. You are understanding the story with your own muscle tensions and with the spasm of your intestines and with your own glandular secretions. Without these reactions, the show would have no meaning.” –Psychiatrist David Fink, Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
We can apply what happens to people in a movie to what you want your reader to feel as he/she reads.
Describe your focal character’s emotions on a physical level. Make your reader really understand what the character’s body is going through. As they read how the character’s body is reacting, your reader will feel that in his/her own body to an extent, and suddenly the reader’s emotional experience is heightened.
Compare these two examples (the second one is taken from Sushi for One?):
Lex stood rooted to the floor in shock.
Lex's heart stopped for a long, painful moment, then started again at NASCAR speed. Her hands shook and tightened as if they were clenched around a vibrating steering wheel.
Notice I never use the word “shock” in the second example. (See my Story Sensei post on naming emotions for more info on that.)
Let me also add as an aside—stay away from cliché phrases like “her stomach clenched” and “a shiver ran down his spine.” You’re a writer, be creative!
Emotions – thoughts
Your characters are thinking all the time. You want to filter out all but their most important thoughts to convey to your reader.
Those thoughts should be the ones that will specifically move your reader’s emotions.
Thoughts are related to the writing craft topic of point of view. If you get deep into your character’s point of view, then his/her thoughts enhance the scene emotionally.
The key here is that your character’s thoughts tell the reader how the character feels about the events happening, other people, or the surrounding area.
Compare these two:
Andrea O’Malley paused on the threshold of the Chinese restaurant. She wasn’t sure if she liked the exotic smells that teased her nose—spices she couldn’t name, as well as nutty sesame oil, salty-sweet oyster sauce, pungent soy sauce. She patted her French twist, which didn’t need fiddling with. She couldn’t help it—she was a golden-haired alien in the midst of these black-haired party guests. At least she hadn’t dressed inappropriately—the other guests stood talking in clusters, the women in short silk dresses like her own.
Lex Sakai raced through the open doorway to the Chinese restaurant, immediately immersed in conversation, babies’ wails, clashing perfumes and stale sesame oil. She tripped over the threshold and almost turned her ankle. Stupid pumps. Man, she hated wearing heels.
The reader gets two very different descriptions of the same party, but through different characters’ thoughts. It not only describes the scene, it reveals things about each character, the character’s emotions, and the conflict to expect in the scene.
Andrea is elegant but uneasy because she feels out of place. Lex is in very familiar surroundings, but impatient about being there.
So be choosy about what your character’s thoughts are. Make their thoughts reflect the emotions of your character, and evoke emotion from your reader.
I have two more aspects of emotional reactions, coming up on tomorrow!
In the meantime, hopefully my Seekerville sisters can chime in, maybe give examples from their own writing!
Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. Her novel Single Sashimi is out now, and she runs the Story Sensei critique service. In her spare time, she is a staff worker for her church youth group, and she leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels every week and ponders frivolous things. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for monthly giveaways!