Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Show Me a Feeling (8 Tips for Writing Emotions) by Marie Wells Coutu

A consistent theme I’ve heard from contest judges and first readers is the lack of feeling in my characters.
Marie Wells Coutu


I’ve used The Emotion Thesaurus, body language books, and other resources in an effort to learn how to show what my character is feeling. But still, the heroine in my unpublished historical novel comes across as having little or no reaction to her father’s death.

The truth is (fictionally), she’s numb. But how do I convey that emotion—or lack of it—in writing? I’m open to suggestions.

Meanwhile, I am reviewing craft books and searching on Google for answers to writing emotions. Here’s some of what I’m learning and some good resources I’ve found:


  1. We all know (unless you started writing yesterday) to “show, don’t tell.” In other words, don’t name the emotion (like, She was numb). “Emotion stated so directly is not particularly convincing, and it certainly doesn’t make the character feel alive to the reader. Details are convincing. Instead, describe [the character’s] demeanor. What does she see, think, feel, taste, or smell?” –Writers Digest University, http://resources.writersonlineworkshops.com/resources/showing-character-emotion/

  2. Be creative but true to your character. “Choose physical, internal, and mental responses for your character that are fresh and not overused.” –Becca Puglisi, co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other Writer’s Guides, http://selfpublishingadvice.org/tips-on-effectively-conveying-character-emotion/

  3. Don’t limit yourself to showing a bodily response. “Showing me your characters’ physical responses provokes no emotional response from me. …You haven’t made your reader feel anything. And that, my friends, is the point of fiction—to elicit an emotional response.” -C.S. Lakin, http://www.livewritethrive.com/2015/06/24/how-fiction-writers-can-show-emotions-in-their-characters-in-effective-ways/ See her example of how slowing down the scene, incorporating thoughts and actions, can have more impact than simply substituting a “clenched fist” for anger.

  4. Don’t overdo it. Overusing physical responses without providing the character’s motivation and thoughts can lead to melodrama. Readers won’t connect with the emotion.

  5. “Use external senses to reinforce an emotion. Heightened emotions can heighten the senses, so perceptions might be stronger.” - Janice Hardy presents: Five Ways to Describe Emotions Without Making Your Character Feel Too Self Aware on Romance University, http://romanceuniversity.org/2013/08/21/janice-hardy-presents-five-ways-to-describe-emotions-without-making-your-character-feel-too-self-aware/

  6. Remember that “emotion is not one-dimensional. Emotions are complex and often mixed together.” – Ann Hood, Creating Character Emotions.

  7. Learn to access your “emotion memory” and use your memories as the seed for the emotion of your character. For examples on how to do this, see Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins.

  8. Use imagery and symbolism to incorporate what Susan May Warren calls the “soul-deep” layer—“one that makes us connect with the character, an almost spiritual connection…It’s the heart of showing.” – “Make ‘em Cry with a Metaphor,” http://learnhowtowriteanovel.com/blog/2008/08/21/make-em-cry-with-a-metaphor/

What recommendations do you have for learning how to show your characters’ feelings and involve your readers emotionally in your story? While I wait to hear from you, I’ll be crying on my keyboard as I try these ideas.
About the Author
Marie Wells Coutu began making up stories soon after she learned to talk. At age seven, she convinced neighborhood kids to perform a play she had written. After a career writing for newspapers, magazines, state and local governments, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, she returned to her first love—writing fiction—at the age of fifty-five. 
The Secret Heart
by Marie Wells Coutu


Her newest novel, The Secret Heart, released in February from Write Integrity Press. Loosely based on the lives of Bathsheba and David, The Secret Heart is the third book in the Mended Vessels series. A prequel novelette of the heroine’s journal called The Divided Heart is available for the Kindle. 

Books in the series are contemporary re-imaginings of the stories of biblical women, including Queen Esther and the woman at the well. 

Her debut novel, For Such a Moment, won the Books of Hope Contest. Thirsting for More, the second book in the series was a finalist in the 2016 Selah Awards Contest and a semi-finalist in the Royal Palm Literary Awards sponsored by Florida Writers Association. 

An unpublished historical novel has also placed in five contests. She and her husband divide their time between Florida and Iowa. You can find more about Marie and her novels on her Facebook page (Author Marie Wells Coutu), at her website (MarieWellsCoutu.com), or follow her on Twitter (@mwcoutu) or on  Amazon.comhttp://www.amazon.com/.

4 comments:

  1. Great article, Marie. When I say show emotions through actions, I don't mean just wiping away a tear but what the character does that shows she's angry, like make a phone call, or write a letter and maybe send it, throw out her favorite knick knack, or run six miles. The decisions she makes in her emotional state come out in what she does. In her angry moment or week, her decisions and subsequent actions show something about her character as well. Thanks for all your tips, Marie.

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    1. You are so right, Zoe, about emotions showing through decisions and actions. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

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  2. Showing emotion is tough. I definitely need improvement. Linda Goodnight does a phenomenal job for anyone wanting to read an example.

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  3. What a great resource on writing emotion. I love the practical snapshots from so many sources. Thanks for including The Emotion Thesaurus in your lineup :)

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