Five Ways to Show Emotion in Your Writing

I’m currently reading a fantastic craft book called From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler. The book is a collection of lectures by the famed author/teacher. Among the many great insights in this book, one little tid-bit that I found particularly interesting was Butler’s thoughts on how to express character emotion in your writing. We are always told to show and not tell in our writing, and there’s nothing that bores a reader more than writing “she felt angry” or “he was sad.”

But how do we express emotion? How do we engage our audience in our character’s feelings? According to Butler, there are five ways in which our characters can experience emotion on the written page. They are as follows:

1) A Sensual Reaction Inside the Body – Your character feels emotion immediately through his or her body. This could be an increase in heart beat, a change in temperature (hot or cold), muscles tightening, a flutter in the stomach, etc. Identify the body reaction in your character, and get creative with your language (beware of clichés like butterflies in the stomach).

2) A Sensual Reaction Outside the Body – Your character will also express emotion through his or her body language. Your character will start by feeling the emotions (and sensual reactions)  inside the body first, and then translate that emotion into the physical. The body will react. Think about your character’s posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, etc.

3) Emotional Flashes of the Past – When humans experience emotion we reference moments from our past in our minds. Small flashes of memory show up in our consciousness. These moments  don’t come as ideas but as vivid images. These images could include memories of similar emotion, people, environments, etc. Think about what your character’s triggers are from his/her past, and how they may surface in the present.

4) Emotional Flashes of the Future – Similar to flashes from the past, a character can also flash forward to the future during an emotional moment. These flashes show what the character desires or fears, as these flashes have not yet come into existence.

5) Sensual Selectivity – Consider your character’s surroundings at the moment of emotion. At any given time your character will be surrounded with hundreds of sensual cues. But the mind cannot process everything at once, the character will select certain elements in his/her environment with which to focus upon. Often one is not conscious of this selection, instead one’s emotions hone in on something deeper, that the character is not aware of. The emotion (in a way) makes the selection. Use your landscape to help reveal character.

This is just a sampling, and I highly suggest you go check out this book for yourself!

Happy reading and happy writing.

15 thoughts on “Five Ways to Show Emotion in Your Writing

  1. I just stumbled across your blog here and am impressed! I will return for more. And just so you know, I’m including a link to this post here in my weekly publishing industry news recap/link post.

    Thanks and have a great week!

  2. This post saved my life! I’ve been struggling with a scene for the past few days. My usual approaches weren’t helping. I’d seen a list of how to approach emotions on another blog, but couldn’t locate it. Happy to find yours! It helped me get closer to what I’m looking for.

    Thanks so much!


    Writing as A. R. Silverberry
    Award-Winning Author of Wyndano’s Cloak

  3. This is useful in that I sometimes do struggle with “showing instead of telling” things in my story about my characters. I shall try and utilize this to improve my novel that I am still working on currently.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s