Thursday, May 21, 2009

Strong Emotional Reactions, part one

Hey everybody! Camy here, talking about writing with strong emotional reactions in your novels.

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!


  1. Camy,

    This is a thought-provoking post. The second description, of the women entering the room, really has me analyzing how it was handled.

    Were both of those descriptions in your book or are they examples?


    I brought blueberry bagels and strawberry cream cheese. Can these count for our fruit servings? LOL


  2. Hello Camy! Great stuff, as usual. This is all so helpful to me right now - I'm working on choosing my characters' thoughts carefully - sometimes I tend to include too many, which difuses the emotion, rather than heighten it. And I also tend to use cliches - like clenched stomach. I'm assuming your character is into car racing - makes the reactions even more believable.

    Can't wait to read more!!

  3. I'll put the coffee on.

    Good stuff. The stale sesame oil placed me solidly in Lex's world. But also, I didn't know it could go stale. At $9 a jar you'd think it would keep better!

    I'm guessing all the details don't come to you at once -- go back and redo some of the parts where their hears pounded and hands got sweaty ...?

  4. Camy,

    Extremely helpful article! Looking forward to the next installment!


    Could someone pass the cream cheese? Thanks!!

  5. This is awesome. Thank you, Camy.

    Bagels. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Cathy.

    I love how our Seekerville friends are so wonderfully thoughtful. They bring food. They put the coffee on.

    You all rock.

  6. Camy,

    Timely post for me...I'm revising my WIP and need to strengthen my emotional responses.

    Waiting, impatiently, for the next installment.


  7. CAMY!!! "Strong Emotional Reactions" ... my FAVORITE subject!! Great post and great examples.

    Okay, you've tempted me ... here's an example of "strong emotional reactions" (are there any other kind??? Not in my books!! :)) from my WIP, book 4 in the O'Connor saga, which is Katie's story. This is a scene where Faith O'Connor finds her husband in the arms of another woman ...

    And so she had prayed, over and over, determined to be rational and clear-thinking in this whole situation. Cool and calm to avoid going off half-cocked.

    Until this morning.

    The man had bolted out the door as if his hair were on fire, leaving his lunch behind — something her husband would never do. Her stomach did another roll and her lips flattened as she marched down the street. She slowed as she neared the shop window and then eased to the side to peek in.

    Her heart caught in her throat … and then in a whoosh of hot air, it drop-kicked back into her chest with a blast of fury. She fisted the knob of the door and heaved it open with an angry clash of bells, slamming it hard against the wall.

    So much for calm.

  8. Excellent examples, Camy of showing strong emotion through physical reactions and thoughts.

    Here's an excerpt from Courting the Doctor's Daughter with Mary and Luke in church:

    Nodding a greeting, Mary's eyes met Luke's. His dark regard rippled through her. The scent of his shaving cream and soap permeated the space between them. Her breath stuttered in her chest. She lowered her eyes, taking in Luke's boots planted firmly on the floorboards, and then traveled to his knees, jutting to within inches of the pew in front of him. With trembling hands she plucked the songbook from the rack and tried to join in, but the words lodged in her throat.

    The power this man had over her evoked the attraction she'd felt for Sam. Tears stung the backs of her eyes. Attraction meant nothing.

  9. This is really funny, because two of my writer friends and I have been having a lively discussion over this very thing. I've always been unsure about how much of this kind of stuff I should put into my books, and I've lately become convinced that I put in too much. And here's why I say that.

    There is one published author (whom I won't name) that my friends and I have all read. She writes in a style that I privately call "overwrought." One of my friends really likes her style, and the other friend and I really . . . well . . . don't. It's annoying to have the characters having all these incredibly strong physical reactions to each other when they've just met, for example. Or what I would consider over-the-top emotional reactions to everything. Other writers, I've begun to notice, and I will names names here, like Mary Connealy and Linore Rose Burkard are more understated with their physical reactions and emotions in their characters. For example, in Linore's book, Before the Season Ends, the hero kisses the heroine's hand, and as soon as she closes the door behind her, she's oblivious to anything around her because she's "too busy going over that parting light kiss to her hand." You know what she's feeling because of her reaction, but (thank goodness) you're not TOLD "her tummy fluttered as her heart beat fast, overcome by the heat of his lips still lingering on her hand." Ugh. Stuff like that makes me roll my eyes. But that's just my made-up example. Linore doesn't write like that! And neither does Mary, and yet I get really excited any time her H/H are close to each other. There's fireworks, always, and I don't need to be TOLD about the pounding hearts and tummy flutters.

    But then again, I wonder if it's just a personal preference type of thing, because one of my friends LIKES to be told about the emotional, physical, visceral reactions. But to me it's more powerful NOT to be told.

    Does anyone get what I'm saying? Or am I just rambling?

  10. I like it, Camy.

    I need to ... I don't know ... learn some new stuff. I seem to be stumbling along, doing okay, but I don't study. I need to study. :(

    I had a long night so I'm a little grumpy.

  11. Thanks for the post. I am really, after a long time of writing, starting to get familiar with showing, not telling. My favorite part about writing is developing characters so I really want them to be believable. The examples gave me some wonderful help.

  12. Hi:

    I can agree with Melanie about writers sometimes going overboard in describing emotional states. This reminds me of the saying that: “If two aspirins are good, then twenty aspirins are better.” Writers need to use judgment.

    The philosopher Wittgenstein believed that “inner states stood in need of outward criteria”. That is, our private inner states would be unintelligible if they could not be related to situations in the outside world. I bring this up because I like to see inner states manifested by the use of outer criteria and not just the body’s physiological reaction to events.

    One of my favorite examples of this is in a story where the heroine becomes very emotionally upset while driving her car. She pulls into Wal-Mart, jumps out of the car, only to find she has locked the door with the motor still running and the keys in the ignition. Have you ever been so upset that you’ve done this yourself? I have. And I know exactly how that heroine felt. I still remember this passage like it was yesterday and I read this book years ago.

    In short, think in terms of both inner states and outer states when manifesting emotional experiences.


  13. I'm looking forward to the next part, too, Camy! Thanks for putting this is bite size chunks! :-)

  14. Nice job. Great illustrations. I'm a "clenched" stomach gal too...back to the drawing board...err computer. LOL.

    Thanks for the others sharing their examples as well. Learnin' a lot here :-)

  15. Here's an excerpt I wrote this morning. It's green but give it a chance...


    Tessa sat up in bed. Screaming.
    Her blood coursed through her veins causing her arms to throb at the current. Her heart hammered against the confines of her chest; she could see it rise and fall with each beat.

    Putting her hand to the valley of her breasts she sucked short gulps of air through her tears, panting like she'd finished a race with a hundred hell hounds at her heels.

    Tessa was chilled and warm. She wiped the sweat from her brow and conscentrated on each breath.

  16. Thanks, Cathy! Only Lex's example is from my book, the other one I made up as a contrast.

    Katie, you're absolutely right--sometimes too many thoughts does diffuse emotion! And yes, Lex is a sports nut, which is why I used the NASCAR reference.

    Ann--it's funny, but my sesame oil doesn't go stale, but when I go to some Chinese restaurants, the stale sesame oil smell is really strong! And yes, most of the time, all those details are layered in AFTER I do the first draft. It's just too hard to think of something more creative than "her stomach clenched" the first time around, whereas in revisions, I can spend more time thinking of something better.

    Thanks, Edwina and Jessica! (here's the cream cheese... ;)

    Tina, I'm glad they bring food b/c I always forget! LOL

    Rose, I hope the next installment is helpful, too!

    Julie, fantastic!

    Janet, that is totally awesome! OMG I can actually smell the man!

    Melanie, it IS possible to have too many visceral reactions. You typically want to use it when the emotion is exceptionally powerful.

    The danger is only using one type of emotional reaction all the time in your story. Some people will only use thoughts to show emotional reaction. Others will only use deliberate actions (i.e., she stamped her foot, he slammed the door, etc.) If you only use ONE type of reaction, that distances the character from the reader and you lose ANY emotional power in those reactions.

    So while I'll be giving four different types of reactions, the key is to mix and match them. If I have a really powerful reaction, I'll use all four if I can. If it's only a minor reaction, I'll use only one type, and usually not visceral since that tends to be the most powerful reaction.

    The key to reactions is that they're in reaction to some external stimulus. For example, her mother says, "You're a disappointment." The heroine has an emotional reaction, probably pretty powerful b/c it's such a harsh stimulus. The hero stubs his toe, he has a reaction like a curse or gritting his teeth, something minor b/c it's a minor stimulus.

    Mary! Cheer up! You're a great writer! And actually that brings up a good point--writers who write humor tend to use less powerful emotional reactions simply because humor is different from, say, women's fiction. For example, my books have less emotional reactions than, say, Julie's because Julie's books are more serious whereas mine are more frivolous.

    Thanks, Cindy! Showing and telling is still hard for me, and I depend on my critique partners to tell me when I'm "telling" b/c I have a hard time seeing it in myself.

    Vince, timely comment--tomorrow I'll talk about those "outer states," where the writer uses actions to show emotions.

    Thanks, Patty! I didn't want to overwhelm people by listing all four reactions in one day. :)

    Lynn, I'm TOTALLY a "clenched" kind of gal, too! I have to delete them all from my manuscript after the first draft!

    Good job, Tina!


  17. Great examples, and DEFINATELY something I need to work on myself:-) Thanks for sharing!!

  18. Great points, Camy! That certain types of stories will need fewer strong emotional reactions than others, and that you should vary the types of reactions. Looking forward to your review of the other types! Thanks for these posts, Camy. This is really timely for me.

  19. Great blog, Camy. I need to go on a slashing spree with current wip, I think!