Me+Joanne Harris’ #TenThingsAboutWritingEmotions – That Emo Life

These are the ten tweets plus my commentary and some examples that I wrote. In a writing workshop last week we talked about writing emotion. I really recommend playing and practicing this type of writing outside your current WIP.

1. Emotions are at the core of characterization and engagement with the reader, and yet they’re not always easy to convey effectively.

  • Mama looked from me to the preacher and I knew she wanted me to be silent just this once. 
    • Mama looked me in the eye, holding my gaze as she pulled at her collar, straighten her pearls, and swallowed hard before she looked back at the preacher as though I hadn’t spoken. 

2. There’s a place for stating am emotion simply: (eg; “I suddenly felt afraid,”) but do this too often and it starts to feel very dull.

I would say that rather than dull, it becomes invisible. If you describe a character again as feeling a certain way rather than showing us that emotion:

  • She felt afraid. Her fears bubbled again. The fear was back and had become paralyzing.
    • As the day went on, her head began to ache, her shoulders constantly tense.
      What had begun as a headache had now spread across her body, she felt like a spring wound too tight.
      And now it flooded her, the snap of her fear released to turn into near blinding terror.

3. And it’s easy, when writing about the physical effects of certain emotions, to fall into dry-mouthed, sweaty-palmed cliche.

  • Upon seeing it, his palms began to sweat, knowing soon he’d have to do something about it. 
    • Upon seeing it, his fingers twitched and his toes gripped inside of his leather shoes, and he knew that soon he’d have to do something about it. 

4. It’s worth remembering that a lot of people (hence a lot of characters) may lack both emotional articulacy and self-knowledge. Decide whether or not your character actually *knows* what they’re feeling, and why.

  • After everything that had happened, the great mind boggling mess of it, they still knew they had each other and that their next step was to head straight back into the fray. 
    • They stood looking at each other, their eyes glassy as each replayed the great mind boggling mess of everything that had happened, silently wishing someone else might come along and tell them how to feel and what to do next.

5. Sometimes the best way to describe what someone is feeling is to compare it with something else they’ve felt in the past (eg: current feelings of helplessness, as viewed through a memory of being bullied at school).

This is hard to do in a concise way and though I have written a whole novel wherein flashbacks are key to the plot, I think it is very hard to do this well. Some people can do it and it feels so natural you almost forget they’re flashbacks at all. But I am not one of those people. If you can think of some great example, comment or message me and I’ll amend the post. 

6. Writing about deep emotions is the closest a writer comes to method acting. Make sure your writing is emotionally authentic: (that means, if you’ve never been in love, you may find it hard to write convincingly about it).

I’m sorry, I’m going to call bullshit on this one. You can talk to people who have felt that thing, you can read other portrayals, and you can also imagine yourself in the situation and look at your own reactions for inspiration (though I recommend you do this with a critique partner and/or close friend and be sure to really examine the emotion in your own life or why you lack it). It is not easy. It is not to be done lightly,. But it can be done. We are writers. We can imagine more deeply than most. 

7. Improve your own emotional articulacy and knowledge. Read up on psychoanalysis; human behaviour; the interpretation of dreams.

I recommend reading about cognitive psychology and cognitive development as well as well the recs given above. 

9. Not everyone externalizes their emotions in the same way (or even at all.) Decide how your characters deal with different feelings. Do they vent? Project? Turn in on themselves? Hurt other people? Hurt themselves?

I think everyone has tells. Give your characters one, at least in your early drafts. You can always cut them out later if you find a better way to show it. I personally sigh when I am frustrated and trying not to curse at people. I also very slightly suck my cheeks in when I’m anxious. If you think about your own tells, you will start to see them in your characters too. 

  • Mandy’s voice always sounded like she talking over you. Even when you waited silently for her to finish, she was speaking to the person behind you. The one who might actually do her bidding. 

10. There are many ways of expressing emotions without naming them. Think outside the box. Consider posture; tone of voice; behaviour patterns; interactions with others; even clothing. Everything matters.

I have given characters physical ticks as well as personal rituals in order to show an inner issue on the page that I can’t get to any other way. As I’ve said above, if you need to give them the same repetitive thing in early drafts, do it if only to remind yourself later that those actions need to evolve as the story and their emotions change. 

  • She stood at the kitchen sink as if a thread were being pulled up and out the crown of her head, gazing out at the squat palms that blew sideways as the breeze came down the canyon. Waiting. Waiting to change her mind or for someone to arrive who could stop her from taking the next step even if it seemed inevitable that she’d do it anyway. 



The above are the combined works and words of Joanne Harris and me. Don’t steal our shit. Thank you. 

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