Writers on Writing–Emotion

My last post was about clichés, and how too many of them create a flat affect in prose and character. So how to get around them, especially if you aren’t the sort of writer who creates lapidary and poetic prose?


Jane Austen’s reworked drafts show that she was already identifying overused figurative language. Her changes were just about always in the direction of realism. Not the gritty realism of today, but telling detail that resonated so much with readers that many thought she was writing about them or someone they knew.


Plain yet vivid language, details . . . of what? How do we vary those emotional changes? We don’t want everyone bellowing in anger, weeping in sorrow, gasping in surprise, and nodding agreement.

The first thing I learned when I began watching people for inspiration was how human beings could vary in emotional reaction—and how they would react similarly.


I was once in a crowded room when an earthquake hit. Most looked around, then skyward, then up would come the arms, partly for balance, but partly for defense. Later, I saw a videotape of a woman caught in a high rise when a quake struck. What did she do? Look around, then up, then out flew her arms, fingers spread.


Another time, I was a witness when some police chased down a criminal and caught him. Their backup arrived moments later. Some of the men turned brick red, others paled. A few walked around fast, without aim; one guy kept yapping questions at everyone in a sharp bark, to which few paid attention. They all had different ways of reacting after the sharp adrenaline spike of action.


Observing people is a great way to build character, especially when something happens. But just observing them going about their lives can teach one a lot. How do people signal emotions if their eyes are not conveniently glowing, smoldering, glinting, twinkling, or blazing? Who meets whose eyes, what is the angle of their head? Watch hands—those can be very revealing. How is the person breathing? Fast? Loud?


What is their posture? Slouch? Upright? Leaning subtly toward or away from someone? Are they sitting in closed-in angles, or open, easy posture? Does the person take up a lot of space, or drift along the perimeter? Sometimes people mirror postures unconsciously.


Watching old film reels of real people is very illuminating. Documentaries where people are not mugging for the camera are also interesting. I don’t recommend watching fictional TV because the actors are hitting marks, and their movements are directed. If you want to see how false their body language is, turn off the sound and notice how careful actors are in relation to one another—there is none of the surprise and uncertainty of real life, because they not only know what is coming next, but are readying for it. Especially in fights.



Writers on Writing–Emotion — 19 Comments

  1. Fascinating topic–and yes, watching how people express emotion is endlessly interesting (though sometimes I feel like a voyeur doing it, even in ordinary situations; I guess because I’m watching with intentionality and purpose… well, but I’m not going to stop, so…)

    What you say about scripted movement in movies and TV shows is so true. I noticed that first as a little kid, when we’d have to watch the tail end of “The Edge of Night” before “Lost in Space” came on at 4 pm. In the soap opera, you’d have someone standing in the foreground, with their back to the person in the background, talking. So we, the viewers, could see both people, but in the drama, the person in the background was talking to the back of the person in the foreground. This was meant to be terribly dramatic–usually the conversation was some betrayal or breakup–but in real life I doubt anyone would talk like that.

  2. Asakiyume, you’re right about the faintly intrusive feel to people-watching, even if you’re sitting on a park bench or in a cafe. You want to learn, so you want people to be unaware–if they are aware of you, they begin performing, even if it’s unconscious. This is quite striking in kids (especially little girls, who seem to have a ‘look at meee!’ gene built in), but it’s also observable in adults.

    But people are so interesting! I remember sitting for hours at a cafe in Greenwich Village in New York a few years back, and thinking it was only forty-five minutes or so. It was like one story after another.

    Documentaries are a guilt-free method of people-watching. Another is standing in extremely long lines. A quick scan can show just how many variations in stances, how many subtle indicator of moods. How people wear their clothes, their preferred colors. You don’t have to stare–just a fast glance is enough.

  3. Yes, I love the checkout line at the supermarket for just this reason! I love to see how people are with their kids, their SO, the checkout person, and how the checkout person is with the customers, with the manager, with the other checkout people, the baggers. Wonderful.

  4. If you’re raised in chaotic circumstances, you learn early to read/gauge these unconscious “tells.” It’s a survival mechanism that we can put to good use in storytelling–memoirists, especially. 🙂

  5. Melodye, that is very true. Children who do not feel safe in their home environment, or any environment, learn to read signals fast, even if they don’t understand the motivations. They know when danger is coming. They also learn, instinctively, ways to deflect. I used to be able to spot survival kids in a classroom; often they were labelled by other teachers as manipulative or acting out or whatever.

  6. So my question is what if you want to write sparsely about emotion? Is it possible to show a character’s emotion by not having them react? How does the understated work?

    Because while people watching is great, it’s hard to know what’s going on in their heads–you can’t ask to check to make sure you’re right. What about writing someone who doesn’t display emotion but is dying inside?

  7. First of all, are you inside that person’s POV, or someone else’s as they observe that person–or are you doing a Dashiel Hammet/Raymond Chandler camera eye third person, where the reader only observes characters, and never sees inside anyone’s thoughts?

    If you want to show that someone is dying inside, then look for the subtle signals. White knuckles, tight shoulders, even fast breathing that you are aware of (usually we do not notice others breathing) are revealing. So is stillness when life is going on around the person, an averted gaze, or a locked gaze. Compressed lips. Huge pupils will often betray extreme emotion in someone otherwise appearing composed.

    Sometimes, I’ve found, you have to put a place marker in a text, and really pay attention to people around you. You’re bound to see someone whose reaction seems the right one for that character.

  8. Waiting areas are great — especially in bus stations or airports. Bars are good, if they are not too noisy so you can eavesdrop. Liquor looses people up. When I was in college taking creative writing classes, we would go to bars and simply write down the dialogue around us as fast as we could.

  9. Brenda: that is a GREAT writing exercise. (As is visiting a park and writing down how the kids chatter.)

  10. It doesn’t have to be a bar. When I used to write in the cafe at Barnes and Noble I would overhear the most fascinating place–people choose coffee shops to meet in when they want neutral ground: I overheard a couple straining to be polite as they went through a list of their belongings to be distributed after the divorce. Each time one of them veered close to “See, you always do that!” they would both pause, get calm, and go on. It was rivetting.

  11. Lovely. 🙂
    I have a moment in a short story that I have to work on, where the protagonist realises that not only has she been spirited away for a year from her husband by a fairy man, but she’s pregnant as well. How to express her mixed feelings without simply having her collapse into tears or hysterics is… challenging! Any suggestions are most welcome. As you say, extreme emotions aren’t always expressed through big gestures – but small ones that ring true to the reader. In this case I’m still looking for those signs that tell us how she’s feeling.

  12. Liz: a lot depends on whose POV we’re in. Are we inside her head? In which case, she might describe her feelings via physical sensation, or the grip of reaction to unexpected things. You know, how, let’s say a relative you were fond of dies suddenly, and you think you’re doing fine, but you’re standing in line at Target and the bouncy music you’ve been ignoring changes to your relative’s favorite song, and you find your throat so choked up you can’t breathe. Being specific about inward reactions as well as what another POV would see in your heroine can really make that moment a grabber in the story.

  13. Interesting topic that rings a bell. As Chance the Gardener in “Being There,” said, “I like to watch.”
    As a severely hearing impaired person, self trained by necessity to lip/face read, and by profession to notice, identify, interpret body linguistic nuances, I unconsciously watch, strain to listen/overhear, no matter the situation.
    A certain hyper-vigilance evolves as a result, one that serves a useful purpose developing a fictional character, but can interfere in interpersonal relationships.
    So often, what is NOT said speaks much louder than what IS said. Therein, the potential problem of unwanted ‘intrusion’ into another’s internal experience, possibly projecting, and acting on what is ‘heard’ or misheard with the ‘third ear.’
    Reading as much as I do, I can sense when an overly sensitive author is too vigilant, cannot keep his/her distance, over-interprets, over-dramatizes, reads in. The result can bring the protagonist very close, perhaps too close, overwhelming the reader’s sensory input.
    It must be difficult to strike the proper balance.

  14. I think sometimes we, as authors, assign too much ‘reading in’ as a way of getting the data across without narrative intrusion. Thus you get the ‘his gaze reached to the very core of her being,’ — so as to find revelations there that actually we don’t really get no matter how much we stare into another’s face.

    Someone who made an art of interpretation of little things was Proust.