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on Tue Oct 13, 2015 7:47 pm

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Conveying emotions can seem easy on the outset. "She was angry." "He thought that was lame." "That made her sad." I mean, the emotions are right there! You know what they are, it says it!

The problem with simply telling what emotion they are is that the reader feels disjointed from it. They may not necessarily be taking that emotion along for themselves and feel the story is disconnected.

The other problem is POV. How does one character inherently know what the other emotions are? This is where the body language comes in, of course, but one problem affects the other.

So here we go!


Show don't tell: The cardinal rule of writing mandates that we show the reader what is going on, not tell them. How can you tell the difference? There's an easy little trick.

Are you using an adverb?
An adverb, in case you have forgotten, is a word that modifies a verb or adjective, it usually ends in -ly.

Example: "Jillian walked angrily to the next room."

At the outset, a perfectly acceptable sentence. We can tell who was walking, where they were walking, and how they walked there. Right?

Sorta. We know that she walked there "angrily" but what does that mean? There are a lot of ways to walk somewhere angrily, but is there a better word available to clarify this and remove the adverb? Is there a technique to use to improve the visual sense of emotion?

Why yes. In fact, there are two.

Showing by use of dynamic verbs.

The quickest way to adjust telling to showing is to eliminate your adverb situation by replacing your "verb adverb" combination with a "better verb." So, the above example of "Jillian walked angrily to the next room" could be modified as such:

Jillian stomped into the next room.
Jillian seethed into the next room.
Jillian stampeded into the next room.
Jillian exploded into the next room.
Jillian stormed into the next room.
Jillian hissed into the next room.

Each one still conveys the motion of Jillian going into the next room, but each sentence now conveys a specific level of emotion and physicality. Stomping shows visible anger as well as shows a girl who is comfortable with expressing herself to others. Perhaps her anger is indignation, like she was insulted. Seethed, on the other hand, makes it sound like she's contained inside herself, fuming angrily. Perhaps her shoulders are slunched and shes' bowing her head, and though her walking stride isn't drawing any attention, she's clearly angry.

The "seethed" example is a good example of something I call "word reassignment." Seething is an emotional state, but it's not a walking verb, per se. It's not "strode" "skipped" "stepped" or "stammered" but we still understand she went from one room to the other. Unless Jillian can fly or teleport, we understand that she's walking. We save a verb by skipping the walking verb, which is implied and obvious, and replace it with something that indicates her emotional state.

This is a fun way to make a sentence more interesting. Let's try a few!

"Spike walked drunkly to the door."
"Spike slushed his way to the door."

"Lethe pushed her pen angrily into the paper as she wrote."
"Lethe chiseled the words into her paper with the pen."

"Ibaku spoke to the guards smarmily, charming his way past."
"Ibaku laughed his way past the guards."


The words used, "slush" "chisel" and "laugh" are not used in their traditional sense, but they make the sentences more interesting, allowing the reader to paint visual images of what they did in their head without describing every last detail.

The only way to really get good at dynamic verbs is to expand your vocabulary. Reading is the strongest way to do this, watching how other people use words and trying them out for yourself. For example, the last book I read used the word "brace" to describe anyone standing at attention; "He braced at attention." I had never thought to use the word in that sense before, and so I added it to my toolbox.


Showing by use of analogy/metaphor/simile.

In this technique, we replace the use of the adverbs by way of comparison rather than by improving the word we use. This is a common technique, and used in my opinion exceptionally well by humor authors, though anyone can do it effectively.

"Jillian walked angrily to the next room."
"Jillian rushed into the next room like a tiger with its tail on fire."

Clearly Jillian is not a tiger, does not have a tail, and no piece of her body was on fire. But we get the sense of the urgency, pain, and ferocity by which she moved.

This technique can be used at any time, though it really shines when you have difficulty describing something. This is particularly true of facial expressions. At least for me. For example, a smile. There are only really two words you can use for smile: smile and grin (you could use beamed or shimmered, etc but that falls in the dynamic word category). Sometimes it's best to just leave the smile or grin alone, or add a simple adverb, but if you really want to convey something peculiar about it, then add the technique:

"Spike smiled like an Irishman discovering a forgotten Jack Daniels bottle."

"Lethe smiled like a mother seeing her baby for the first time."

"Ibaku smiled a dead man's smile."

Each of the three conveys a different emotion, and yet all used the word "smile."

These examples are similes, because they use "like" or "as." You can do this with a straight metaphor, though I have trouble using it myself.

"Hungry Jack was a ravenous beast feasting on a fresh kill."

Instead of saying something was "like" something, you say something "is" something.
I don't like it, but you guys are free to use it. I respect people who can do the metaphor well.

The reason I said this works well with humor is because you can make your comparisons more and more absurd. For example:

"Spike thought that was about as useful as a man using spaghetti for fishing line."

"Lethe thought the woman was about as classy as a ham sandwich deep-friend in mayonnaise."

Or one of my favorites, which was in my very first novel:
"He was about as clueless as a snake in zero gravity."

It serves the same function, but in a more abstract way.

If you want to get really crazy, you can use this technique the way the British do, and say something is not like something else.

"The clock was both beautiful and useful, completely unlike a shoe-shaped peanut butter jar."

Yeah, it's weird.

A note on facial expressions: There a lot of different facial expressions and a lot of different ways a person can quietly convey an emotion. To study this, you shouldn't read, but instead, watch TV or movies. Not anime, things with people in them. TV and movies have the burden of trying to convey an emotion through visual means, rather than words. There can be some benefit to this, but it's also a challenge to do well. Study actors and their expressions, then try to figure out how to use analogies or dynamic words to get those emotions across.


I could go on about this forever, but that would be better for a class on "creating an emotional atmosphere." In the meantime, feel free to post your tips, arguments, complaints, or questions below.

written by tsuneo of narutoc

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