I just finished a book I thought wasn’t very good. That’s not something I do very often, and actually, if you follow along you know I have no qualms about putting a book down if I’m not enjoying it. The thing with this book was that I actually liked the story, but the author (who shall remain anonymous, because I’m not looking to bash anyone – writing a book is hard), had some serious trouble writing emotions.
Hands are not the only body part
Every time something happened to the main character in this book, the author would describe her hands. It was like her hands were the only place in her body where emotions registered. They balled into fists, they clenched, they turned to claws (in more active scenes), and the worst: her fingernails cut little half circles into her palms and drew blood. I mean really, has anyone, EVER actually balled their fists so tightly that they drew their own blood? It’s always been a pet peeve of mine, and after this book, I’ve lost all patience with it.
The reason I was willing to overlook this frequent and highly annoying writerly quirk is that I understand. Writing emotions is tricky. It’s definitely one of the hardest things for me as a writer. Because I can’t just write: she was angry. That’s simply bad writing. So I have to try to find ways to describe the emotion. This falls under the category of “show don’t tell.”
Know it to show it
What makes writing emotions particularly difficult is that we have to able and willing to feel an emotion if we want any hope of actually writing it and frankly, I don’t like feeling angry (or sad, or alone, or…). There are so many emotions I would rather not feel and those are the exact emotions that make a story interesting. A story where no one ever feels a negative emotion isn’t much of a story.
To make the task of writing emotions even more difficult, you have to be able to stay with a yucky feeling long enough to pick it apart, to tease out the details of what it feels like, find the words to describe it, and get those words on the page. To do it well is really hard.
The Emotion Thesaurus
On the recommendation of a friend at A Very Important Meeting, I recently bought myself a book called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. It gets super clinical about emotions, breaking down the inward and outward signs of literally hundreds of emotions. Take for instance the entry for Paranoia:
- Flinching and startling easily
- Clenching jaw
- Eyes that don’t seem to blink often enough
- Facial tics
- Always looking over the shoulder
Notice the lack of hands. The list goes on and on, dipping into internal sensations:
- Sensitivity to touch and sound
The authors even give a few tips at the end of each entry on things to be careful about when writing each emotion.
Trust your gut
I share this with you not to imply that you NEED this book, but more to offer it as a useful aid. Writing any emotion authentically will require you as the writer to feel it, as it is, in the particular instance of the scene you’re writing and considering the characters you’re representing. There are no shortcuts. But resources like this thesaurus can be a useful starting place. At the very least, it might help you find other ways of describing tension that don’t involve clenched fists. (Please, please, for the love of Steinbeck, stop with the clenched fists.)
You’re a writer. Dig deeper.