Friday, May 22, 2009

Strong Emotional Reactions, part two

Missed part one? It was yesterday.

Emotions – dialogue

Dialogue is one of the best ways to reveal emotions, but it can also be overused.

Just dialogue:

If you only use dialogue to reveal emotions, the reader doesn’t quite get into the character’s head. They’re an audience at a play, not inside the character’s skin.

Use dialogue in conjunction with thoughts, physical reactions, and actions in order to give your reader the full effect of the character’s emotions.


Many times, the greatest emotion is conveyed by what the character doesn’t say.

This is called subtexting or “cross-talk.” Sometimes it is also referred to as “off the nose” dialogue.

Sometimes, you read dialogue and can take it at face value. Other times, there are subcurrents under the actual words said, meanings deeper and perhaps even the opposite of the dialogue.

Those subcurrents make for juicy, conflicted, tension-filled dialogue.

For a good example of subtexting (with commentary), read the Advanced Fiction Writing Ezine September 2006 edition.

One of the best books on subtexting is Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins. If you haven’t yet read that book, go out and buy it now!

Dialogue is war:

Randy Ingermanson puts out the Advanced Fiction Writing Ezine, and in one of his articles he talks about how dialogue is WAR.

It doesn’t mean people have to have shouting matches at each other, but people should be fighting with each other, usually with subtexting and emotional undercurrents.

“All dialogue had better have conflict in it FIRST. That means two characters talking who have opposing interests.” –Randy Ingermanson, Advanced Fiction Writing Ezine

For example, Character A trying to withhold information from Character B, and Character B trying to get Character A to ’fess up. Or Character C trying to get her point across to Character D, while Character D is holding fast to her denial.

Conflict and undercurrents in dialogue are what make your reader feel the emotions of the character.

Emotions – actions

Actions and body language are terrific tools for showing character emotion. When coupled with dialogue, physical reactions, and thoughts, the reader gets a complete picture of what the character is feeling, and better yet experiences those feelings with the character.

First off, don’t resort to cliché actions like running a hand through his hair, or throwing a glass/vase/figurine at the fireplace. You’re a writer, be creative! Think of things more unique, and yet suited to the particular character.

Also, make sure you go in order of how a body would react. Usually it’s physical reactions and thoughts first, then dialogue, then actions and body language.

Scarlett O’Hara didn’t stamp her foot first and then feel her head sizzle with anger. She had a physical reaction first and used her foot stamping to punctuate her emotions.

It’s not always this order of events, granted, but this is the typical order of things according to inertia—it takes more effort and more neurons firing to speak and act than it does to have a knee-jerk reaction or think certain thoughts.

When your reader reads a character acting a certain way, to an extent, the reader feels himself act that way, too. When Scarlett stamps her foot, the reader can almost feel the thump of the boards under her heel at the same time.

That’s why actions are so vital to help your reader experience your character’s emotions.

Use character actions judiciously and with great creativity. Actions and body language can really pull your reader into your character’s head and body.

Go through your manuscript and look for where your character is reacting emotionally. What’s the order of things? Is there a disconnect or do you have a good order? Do the character’s actions make the reader feel the character’s emotions?

Use your judgment

Obviously, you're not going to use all four emotional reactions every time your character feels emotion--that would be overkill--but use your own judgment.

If an emotion is a strong one, use perhaps 3 of the four reactions (although make sure you use visceral since that's the strongest reaction, and if you have a strong emotion, you want a strong reaction).

If an emotion is minor, use only one of the emotions (and probably not visceral).

Basically, mix and match things up.

However, BE WARNED: Do not use predominantly one type of emotion reaction all the time. For example, don't use thoughts most of the time to show emotions, or actions.

Mix them up. Use a lot of variety.

If you don't mix things up, your emotional reactions lose their power. The reader is distanced from the characters rather than feeling and experiencing their feelings.

Whew! That was a lot of info yesterday and today. I hope that was helpful! I know my Seekerville sisters probably have stuff to add to this. Any good examples, guys?

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. Here's my comment...

    I'm number one. Golly I'm never the first to leave a comment.
    But I did it. LOL

    Good post, Camy.

    I shall return on the morrow to give better input.

  2. wow..great stuff, camy! thanks. i especially liked the links to some of the old advanced fiction writing e-zines....GREAT stuff! who'd have thought Tom Clancy would get away with writing about spice cake? and who doesn't love a Jane Austen fix...FULL of subtext! excellent examples....hope to read some more from the seekerville ladies tomorrow!

    and camy...looking forward to taking your workshop in denver!

  3. Tina and Jeannie, thanks! Wow, you ladies are up late, just like me!

  4. Very good post. I read and now I am printing it up to use along side my edit.

    What? No food? No java.

    Jet fuel is now brewing on the sidebar. And since I am taking the day off to write--NO COOKING. We have Krispy Kreme's. 3 dozen of the variety pack.

  5. Who says you can't teach an old dog -- or author tricks??? You just taught me about "subtexting," something I have NEVER heard of before!! In fact the entire post was chock-full of great stuff, Camster -- Thanks for all the wonderful information.

    Now to go apply ...


  6. Great info!! Thanks.

    *munching happily on a krispy cream custard filled chocolate donut. Can we say YUM!?

  7. Another terrific post, Camy! Thanks for all the excellent tips for using dialogue and actions to creat emotion in our stories.

    I've never heard the term sub-texting, but knew it's fun to have characters say the opposite of what they really feel.

    I used that technique in this excerpt from Courting the Doctor's Daughter.

    Luke frowned as Mary dashed by. He’d obviously interrupted a cozy moment between her and Frank. Isn’t that what he wanted? So why did the sight of Sloan holding her hand bang against his every nerve? He turned to go.

    “May I speak to you a second?” Sloan asked.

    Luke nodded, though at the moment, he’d prefer conversing with a rattlesnake.

    “I feel like I should ask. Is there anything between you and Mary?”

    A connection Luke couldn’t admit. A child they both loved. Luke shoved his response past his clenched jaw, “No.”

    Sloan smiled. “Good. From the scowl on your face I was afraid you’d staked a claim.”

    “Mary’s not a piece of land up for grabs.” Sloan chuckled, like Luke had made a joke, but he’d never been more serious. “You’ve mentioned a desire to be on staff at the best hospital in the country. You should know Mary loves this town. She wants to take over the practice one day, continuing her father’s legacy.”

    Sloan’s self-satisfied smile set Luke’s teeth on edge. “A noble goal, but once Mary discovers a whole world’s out there to explore, she may broaden her sights.”

    Remembering Mary’s desire to travel, Luke cringed inwardly. Could she be persuaded to leave? To leave the people she cared about in this town, her father and the legacy she said she wanted to continue?

    He hauled in a shaky breath. Perhaps with this dashing fellow she could leave it all behind and never look back.

    “I’ll have a chance to discuss it with her tonight. She’s invited me to her house for dinner.”

    The muscle worked in Luke’s jaw. “If you’re intending to court Mary, I hope you have permanence in mind.”


    He laid his palms on the table and leaned toward Sloan until they were nose to nose. “Yeah, like a ring on her left hand.”

    Frank slid his chair back. “It’s a bit early for that discussion, but I will tell you this much, doctor, I don’t play games.”

    “Glad to hear it.” With that lie fresh on his lips Luke stalked from the room.

  8. I love getting into character. Everything you just said makes perfect sense. I love the fact there are at least four setups to get across the depth of emotions a reader should feel with the character.

    And the reality is, we all love conflict in high-powered characters. But I agree, if there's never an explanation of actions in a character's head, I feel left behind.

    So now my challenge is to find some new ways to express the ever-fluxuating feelings. Thanks for detailing the abstract knowledge I had!

    With delight to be connecting, Ayrian Stone, author of Love that is Blind, Sept 08

  9. Great info, Camy. I'll let it marinate for awhile, and then read it again.

    I read Part I yesterday, and last night while revising a chapter, I noticed I'd used a physical emotional reaction as a beat. I had to think about that for a moment. While pondering its function, and with yesterday's post in the back of my mind, I realized this particular emotional beat came across as telling.

    You may have spelled this out (but like I said, it's still marinating) but as I understand it, beats show action. And while we want to show not tell, especially in the midst of a scene, showing sometimes requires more words. I think I can mix a short burst of reaction--mental or physical--as a type of beat, but I'm wondering if a small amount of telling is acceptable. I know telling has it's place and that it's a small one, but I'm still learning to recognize the most insidious forms, and to figure out what that place might be.

    I hope this makes sense. I feel like I'm at the edge of understand, but I don't know if I've passed into the light or if I'm still in still in the twilight. I am sooo ready for another conference.

  10. Janet, that is a really vivid scene. Thanks for sharing it. Makes me the reader totally endeared to Luke. Big sigh.

  11. Hey Tina, I took today off to write, too : ) I'll add Mexican breakfast pastries to the buffet--not too sweet but very filling : )

    Good, good stuff, Camy. You bring up great points with subtexting and Brandilyn's book. Isn't it fun to NOT say what you mean : )

    *With the lie fresh on his lips...* Ooo Janet, talk about subtexting supreme!

    I labor over working out my rough draft, revising, reworking. When I'm happy with the sequencing, THEN I work on the subtlties that make the characters think.

    Never an easy task, IMO, LOL!!

  12. Okay I'm back. Went back and read the blog again. I think this shows subtexting and hopefully the dialog carries well.

    This is from the story I gave the excerpt from yesterday, but further on in the story....

    Marcus was confused, for a moment she seemed lost, she sounded like the Thea of his dreams and now even though she tried to face him, fear filled her eyes. This was the great assassin? Was it possible he’d been wrong?

    He started toward her then stopped. “I have to hand it to you, you’re good. But I won’t be fooled again.”

    “What are you talking about? Why am I here?” The look of confusion that mingled with her fear and the way she pulled her blanket closer, made him reassess his thinking once again.

    Stay focused. She’s a trained assassin, an actress. He crossed his arms on his chest. “You know why you’re here. You almost killed me and I want to know why.”

    “I don’t even know you.” Her breaths shallow, she eyed the door.

    He lifted the Samurai sword from the wall and turned to her with a sneer. “You know me. Think about it.”

    “But I don’t you. Honestly.” Her eyes followed the movement of the sword.

    He leaned forward, blocking her vision. “Tell me the truth.”

    She reared back. “I am. I don’t know you.” Her shoulders hitched with her voice.

    He straightened, her eyes followed him up. “Lady, this isn’t a game.” He pointed the sword at her. “You tried to kill me. Now if you tell me the truth, I might decide to be lenient.”

    Shivering, she bowed her head and rubbed her arms.

    His confusion mounted. If he wanted to scare her, he’d succeeded, which seemed far too easy given who she was.

    When she met his gaze again, anguish filled her face as tears tracked her cheeks. “Why would I want to kill you? I don’t know you. Please, let me go.” She gulped and coughed softly as she choked on her tears. “My son is . . .”

    “You, liar.” He swiped the blade through the air then hit the glass table by his chair, it shattered.

    She jumped off the bed, ran out of the room. Long steps carried him to the corner she cowered in. She shielded her face with one arm while she tried to hold the blanket with the other.

    “Please, I don’t know . . . I don’t know what you want me to say.”

    That infuriated him. He cut the air with cold steel to his right then swung the sword before him. “You don’t remember Las Vegas? You don’t remember the man you pulled from the water? The man you tried to kill moments before?”

    She lowered her arm and met his eyes. “I remember pulling someone from the water, he was bloody and hurt, his face was swollen, but I didn’t try to kill . . . you.”

    Marcus slammed his fist to the wall above her head, causing her to tuck her head to her knees and cover her head with her arms. He tapped her leg with the sword.

    “Please don’t . . . don’t. Let me go I’m not lying. Please.”

    He saw her peek up at him then quickly lower her head.

    Marcus groaned. Were he a cursing man he’d have a string of expletives to say. He had enough. He couldn’t break her, and he couldn’t kill her. Let the transporter do what he couldn’t.

    He set the tip of the sword on the carpet. “Fine, go.” Her gaze inched up to his. “Go.”

    Once the scanner didn’t read the correct code in her blood, his code, it would wait for retinal or voice verification. Without the proper clearance the computer would send out a stream of poison followed by a laser that would cut her apart then disintegrate her.

  13. Great info here. Kinda sounds a little like RET back from my psychology days.

    With these two posts in mind, contest results in hand, I'm going to have a fun time revising (love that part...watching a story get better and better)

    Great stuff here, Camy. Nice work.

  14. Great post! I'm so glad you did this because the light bulb is coming on! We need a balanced approach. Need to go revise.

  15. Wow - this is excellent! Subtexting... I'll have to keep my eye out for this throughout my WIP!! Thanks Camy!

  16. Think I might look for Brandilyn's book. I certainly enjoy her dialog.

  17. Cam, great stuff here, and Janet I love that scene. Poor Luke. So torn. We all know she doesn't really want Sloan, right? I mean, how could she when Luke is so doggone perfectly flawed????

    And no small bit of loose change in his background.


    Tina, I'm loving the Krispy Kremes and Audra, the Mexican pastries, whatever they are. Is that taco flavored pastry??? With salsa?



    Camster, I'll keep this in mind as I edit this weekend. And why do I suddenly have the feeling that EVERYTHING I write is cliche????

    Oy vey.


  18. Another great installment in your series on emotional reactions, Camy. I'm soaking in your instruction.

  19. Great stuff, Camy...if I could understand it all. I'll read it again after I've had a few Krispy Kremes.

    Nah, there not stale.

    I'll nuke 'em for a 12 seconds. Then they'll be perfect.

  20. Hi Camy:

    You have given a very interesting analysis. It makes me wonder about other creative methods of conveying emotions.

    Do you think a writer could convey emotion energy by using mood just as a composer might do in an opera? (Of course, this would be in a much more subtle context.)

    I’m thinking in terms of the physical description provided by the author.

    For example, when the hero enters the courthouse the grounds are described as having a garden of flowers that made it seem like they were arranged for a summer wedding. Then when the hero leaves the courthouse, after learning his father is not who he thought he was, the same flowers are described as beauty in search of a funeral home. I don’t suggest that it is the character that views the flowers this way. The flower description is just part of the background mood the author establishes.

    Do authors do this? Would this technique sublimely underscore the emotional impact that the author is trying to convey? Important here is the fact that reality stays the same. I’m not talking about having nature mirror emotions as would be the case if the hero walked out into a thunder storm.

    Just a though.


  21. Tina, Krispy Kremes and jet fuel? You know how to wake a body up!

    LOL Thanks, Julie!

    Krista, I like the custard filled ones, too! But my thighs don't. Sigh.

    Janet, I love that! Thanks!

    Thanks, Ayrian! Most of what I mentioned isn't new to people, but sometimes it helps to have it listed in a more detailed way.

    Kimberli, while most of the time it's better to show and not tell, sometimes you really do need to tell. For example, there is such a thing as too much showing--like showing a character getting up in the morning, brushing their teeth, combing their hair, etc. If you feel a small amount of telling is needed, then go for it. In fact, I will confess to using a few -ly adverbs in my writing (gasp!)

    Audra, enjoy your writing day! Woohoo!

    Tina, I'm not sure if much of that is subtexting, per se. Usually subtexting is saying one thing but meaning the opposite, and it seems your characters are actually saying exactly what they mean for most of that.

    Lynn--RET? I'm intrigued! What's that? I don't remember that from my college psych classes.

    Melanie--glad it helped!

    Katie--Subtexting is FUN!

    Sheila--Brandilyn's book is excellent, not just her subtexting chapter but the rest of it, too. I use it all the time!

    Ruthy, you're a fabulous writer! And honestly, everything I write is cliched too, and I have to revise it out.


    Pam--Ooooh I love hot donuts. I nuke them all the time.

    Vince, that's an excellent example of when an author uses description to show emotions. This is more along the lines of "thoughts" in my four emotional reactions. The character is describing the setting but with an emotional filter, so you show two things--the setting AND the character's emotions or personality. I had two short blog posts about it here and here if you want to read them.


  22. Hi Camy:

    I just checked both articles you referenced and your ‘story sensei’ site is like an encyclopedia of writing skills. I wish I knew to have visited much sooner. You are a natural teacher. Wonderful. Please let me know if I can get any of your books in large print or as ebooks. I would love to read one of your books.I have "Sushi For One?" but the type is very small.



  23. Aw, thanks so much, Vince! I'm afraid my books aren't yet available as large print, but you can get them as ebooks in various formats from the Zondervan website:

    Sushi for OneOnly Uni (for some reason they don't have Only Uni as ebooks on the website, but I think you can email them about that.)
    Single SashimiCamy