Describing Emotion

Don’t let your emotional descriptions be cliche.

As writers, we can bring freshness to our scenes by using our internal responses to events to describe our character’s (MC’s) body’s reactions to emotional stimuli? According to Humintell, there are approximately six primary emotions: anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Each of these emotions evokes a unique combination of physiological (body) responses, especially facial features as shown and detailed in Humintell’s article.

As a reader, I’ve read descriptions of how a MC reacts to loss that include the tightening throat and stinging eyes… The challenge is to make the description less cliché.

To do this, give your writing a twist, and pull information from your own experiences.

Below I’ve captured two events from my life. The first sparks sadness and the second surprise. So if I need to write a sad or surprised scene, I focus on my body’s physiological reactions to those events.

Sadness Example:

My uncle sat in his blue corduroy recliner. His eyes had pinched down so only a hint of blue wept through his lids. His breath, though labored from pain, seemed strong. How wrong, I thought, that his life approached the end. I held his thin-skinned hand and allowed myself to feel the strength and warmth that fought to exist. That warmth embodied the friendship and love he had shown toward me. My jaw line ached in a way a lime will pull pain from your mouth without a taste, but only sight. My pursed lips quivered into a forced smile he’d expect from me. But my eyes… My eyes brimmed with unshed tears I’d only allow to fall when I left his room.

Note: My reaction to my uncle’s pending death was due to his expectation of me to remain stoic. He wouldn’t have wanted to know that he’d caused me, or anyone else, pain. He brought joy to the world and not the other. And that’s exactly what I gave him: a joyful face though my heart was breaking.

This example is not cliché. I doubt anyone has written the rawness of loss of a loved one in this way, but the physiological experience is similar in all of us. That’s what we need to capture internally when we write our MC’s internal dialogue, even though your MC’s external reaction may be completely the out-of-place, laughing perhaps. That coping mechanism is formed early on by our parents and culture as an example is detailed below.

Surprise Example:

My father came home from work around five o’clock every day. On one uneventful after-school day, he walked through the door and said, “Cyndi, I thought I told you to clean out the truck…”

I never argued with my father or questioned him in any way. Upsetting our Italian family balance was my sibling’s forte. Instead, I jumped to my feet and went outside to clean the truck, grumbling under my fifth grade breath, why I had to do the dirty work on such a balmy day. I peeked through the open window and assessed the task.

On the front seat of our green Chevy sat the most beautiful tri-colored Collie puppy I’d ever seen. The white fur collar circled his neck and his deep brown eyes gazed up at me as if I were an angel.

My eyes widened and my fingers gripped the chrome door handle, but I didn’t move my hand or arms or feet. I couldn’t. What if I dropped him with my trembling hands? All I could do was stare down at the quiet fur ball and inhale his puppy essence until it calmed my racing heart.

Note:  I didn’t jump up and down or scream or run in circles. I didn’t jerk the puppy out of the car and squeeze him like children will do. I didn’t because my family culture had taught me to be reserved and emotionally silent, even though fireworks of joy and surprise and fear were exploding inside my body.

And that’s the challenge as a writer. You must understand your MC’s backstory in a way that you capture the unique response to each situation. A MC’s external reaction may be different from your reaction to the same stimulus, but internally the body’s reaction is the same. Understanding the Enneagram Institutes (personality traits) can help understand specific personality traits. See my previous blogs too.

I hope this method inspires you to detail emotions in a way that is less cliché.

How do you evoke emotion in your characters? Do you pull from your experiences or not? How do you stay true to character? I would love to hear from you.

Happy Writing,

Cynid Faria

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