Thursday, June 23, 2016

Tricks to Showing Emotions by Robin Patchen

Today we are fortunate to welcome Robin Patchen to Seriously Write. Robin is a great author, fantastic freelance editor and amazing friend. She has taught numerous workshops and I've learned something from every one of them. Today's post first appeared on Neal Abbott's blog “A Word Fitly Spoken."

How do most of us (note—I’m one of the us) show emotions in our stories? Often, we use physical responses. Here are a few:

                     Sad—eyes filling with tears

                     Angry—fists clenching or slamming stuff

                     Worried—gut twisting

                     Happy—smiling, grinning, laughing, chuckling, giggling

It works, it’s easy, and it makes the point. It’s perfect.

Maybe not.

It has been said that the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotional reaction. So let me ask you, when you read the words, “Her eyes filled with tears,” do yours? Because mine don’t. And I don’t even know what a twisting gut feels like. Those phrases may show us how your character feels, but they don’t evoke any emotions. So how do we make our readers feel along with our characters?

I don’t have a step-by-step plan. However, I have recently had an epiphany. Counselors tell us that thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to actions. So what happens if you show us your characters’ thoughts and actions? Seems to me their feelings will be obvious, and you won’t need to tell us about their rumbling guts and teary eyes. And if you do it right, you can make the reader feel what your characters do. An example:

John hefted his bag and limped down the metal stairs, forcing himself not to rub that sore spot. Plenty of guys had worse injuries than his. He stared across the tarmac. A band played on the left. An array of dignitaries stood in his way. He scanned the crowd. They held signs that read Welcome home and God bless our heroes.

It was time to be a different kind of hero.

She stood beyond the suited politicians. His wife had curled her hair that day, just like he liked it. A year had passed since he’d seen her last. A year of dust and death, of protecting the innocent and chasing the guilty. A year he’d never get back.

He circled the official greeters, ignoring the protest from his colonel, and approached her. He stopped a few feet away and peered at the bundle she held in her arms. His wife shifted so he could look. Three months old. Blue eyes that looked so much like his own. Curly brown hair. The baby smiled and turned away. John returned his gaze to his wife. “He’s perfect.”

“He looks like you.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t—”

She stepped into his arms and fell against him. “You’re here now. Home and safe. That’s all that matters.”

In that scene, we read the man’s thoughts, and we see his actions. His gut didn’t twist at the sight of those dignitaries. His heart didn’t speed up as he scanned the crowd for his wife. His eyes didn’t fill with tears when he saw his child for the first time. But he did feel something. Did you?

So how did it work? A few observations:

1-Start with a character your readers care about. I took the easy road and created a wounded hero, but I only had 200 words to work with. With an entire novel and some skill, you can make your readers care about almost anyone.

2-Let the character’s thoughts reflect his feelings. He thinks about his time overseas—“A year of dust and death…” and follows it up with—“A year he’d never get back.” Do you hear regret?

3-Give us a glimpse of the character’s desire. In this case, I added that one remark—“It was time to be a different kind of hero.” Life as he knew it was not enough for John. He wanted something more.

4-Use compelling dialog. He could have said, “Hello.” She could have responded with, “How are you?” But while those ordinary expressions are realistic, they don’t mean anything. Instead, dump all the banal stuff and make your dialog reflect your characters emotions.

5-Use feelings and snapshots to set your scene. Show the scene through the eyes of your character, so his description reflects his feelings. The dignitaries weren’t just in front of him, they “stood in his way.” He immediately looked past them to scan the crowd. And if you can think of a snapshot that resonates with readers, use it. In this case, I used a welcome home reception for soldiers. I think that touches a lot of us.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to charge your scenes with emotion, but it’s a start. I challenge you to go through your manuscript and find every place you’re showing emotions through physical reactions. See where you can use description, thoughts, actions, and dialog (another form of action) to evoke that emotion instead. You probably won’t be able to rid your manuscript of every tear, but maybe if your characters cry less, your readers will cry more.

Robin Patchen lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, with her husband and three teenagers. Her third book, Finding Amanda, released in April, and its free prequel, Chasing Amanda, released in July. When Robin isn’t writing or caring for her family, she works as a freelance editor at Robin’s Red Pen, where she specializes in Christian fiction. Read excerpts and find out more at her website, robinpatchen.com

19 comments:

  1. Thank you Robin. These are excellent ideas!

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  2. I'm editing right now, so this post is a great reminder, Robin. Thanks!

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  3. Thanks for hosting me today. Glad to be here.

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    1. Delighted to have you guest on Seriously Write.

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  4. Excellent interview! I had an editor take out all my expressive words and tell me to "show it" with a clenched jaw, eyes tearing, etc. I think we can do both...but truly I get so tired of reading about a shiver down her spine. That's never happened to me! God Bless you, Robin as you continue on your writing journey. :)

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    1. I've had this experience, too, where people think that to show emotions means only to show some physiological reaction. But that seems so over-the-top, because I so rarely am aware of my physiological reactions. I feel like when we're showing the emotions in a non-POV character, then noticing the clenched jaw works well, but in the POV character? Why not just tell us what thoughts lead to the clenched jaw and leave the guy's poor jaw alone?

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  5. Robin - great tips! I'm slowly working on edits and plan on using these suggestions to make my story stronger.

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  6. You hit the nail on the head. That's exactly what's been bothering me about my writing! Thanks for your helpful tips and examples. I'm going to start revising from this angle today.

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  7. What a helpful post! Just finished "Finding Amanda" and really enjoyed it!

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  8. Love this! Your tips are just what I need right now as I revise two manuscripts before publication. I've grown weary of seeing the same type of emotional reactions in my book. If I'm getting bored with them, how can my readers not? Definitely going to see if I can use your suggestions.

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    1. Have fun with your edits. I hope this helps.

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  9. Great post Robin! I always learn something new from you!

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    1. Oh, Janet, you're so far beyond me, I can't imagine that could be true! Thanks!

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  10. I'm in rewrites so this comes at the right time! Thanks!

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  11. Excellent post, Robin, as always. You always inspired me to dig deeper and write more intelligently.

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    1. Oh, Linda, you're so sweet. And such a fantastic writer!

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