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« When Your Characters Don't Share Your Moral Values | Main | Put 'Em on the Couch: Character Therapy »
Friday
Jun112010

Enough with the Eyebrows: Showing Emotion

 

63-eyes-up
Photo by Buster Benson


We hear it over and over again--show don't tell.  Don't tell us your character is angry, show it through their words, their visceral reactions, their body language.  Easy peasy, right?  Um, yeah.

 

What this ends up looking like for me is a lot of eyebrows in my first draft--they raise, waggle, arch, knit, furrow, and on and on.  I'm also a fan of crossing arms, shoving hands in pockets, throats clearing, swallowing hard, cheeks reddening, and narrowing/widening/rolling eyes.  And don't even get me started on smiling and laughing.

I know I need to change it up, and I try to do the showing more with dialogue and such, but many times you need to use expression and visceral stuff.  This has become a major focus for me because I write romance and attraction is such a whole body/mind experience.  And I don't want to resort to using the cliches--knees weakening, desire racing through veins, etc.

So what I've started to do is as I read other's work, I keep a notebook nearby to jot down those reactions that don't automatically come to my head--bobbing Adam's apples, pupils dilating, whatever.  This has been very helpful.

BUT THEN, I went on the RWA site to start downloading my worksheets for the National Conference and found THIS.  Author Marilyn Kelly is offering an 11 Senses workshop at the conference, and although I know most of you won't be attending, the worksheets alone are gold, GOLD, people. (UPDATE: 8/2013 - These worksheets are no longer available. The only place I could find a version is here.)

There are exhaustive lists of words and synonyms that relate to all  of the (eleven) senses, but most helpful to me is the list of body language cues for each of the big emotions.  I'm talking like thirty different ways to show anger or sadness or confusion, etc..  It's fabulous.  And free. 

And as additional resource, Angela over at The Bookshelf Muse does something similar doing thesaurus-style posts for emotions, settings, colors, etc.  All the former posts she's done on each emotion are listed in her sidebar on the site for easy reference.  Make sure and check her out as well because she's having a terrific contest right now offering critique-related prizes. (UPDATE 8/2013: Angela has compiled all the information from her site into a book, you get The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression  in paperback or ebook.)

Alright, so am I the only one who gets stuck using the same body language cues over and over?  What emotions or what type of scenes do you find the most difficult to convey?  What are some of the ones that keep popping up in your manuscript?

**Today's Theme Song**
"Sweet Emotion" - Aerosmith
(player in sidebar, take a listen)


 

Reader Comments (44)

In my Nano from last year, everyone nodded and widened their eyes so much, it's a wonder no one had a stroke.

Thanks for the link! I definitely need help here...

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSummer

Great post! I live on Angela's blog. It's made a huge difference in my writing. At least I think it has. :D

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStina Lindenblatt

I thought I was the only one, and I was wondering why the hell it was so hard for me to write interesting, gripping work like other people. Clearly I need to learn the lesson that a good work isn't born that way.

I also steal cues from other writers...'oh, that's how they introduced a span of time'... 'oh, I like that visual clue right there'... In fact when My writing gets really dry and motions become repetitive, I know I am not reading enough.

Great post! :D

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMissM

Also, if another one of my characters shrugs a shoulder or wiggles a brow, I will toss the laptop out of the window.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMissM

Oooh thank you! Now my characters can graduate from clenching their fists to something much better :)

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergeorgia

This is great! I have a folder full of stuff to help me when I get into a rut, and this is a wonderful addition. Thanks!

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTracy

Thank you so much for posting on this topic and providing such great links.

Arched eyebrows, clenched jaws, tight throats, descending fangs ): - yeah, guilty of it all.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

And BTW, you have one of the best and most relevant (to my writing anyways) that I've found.

And the music connection? Yeah, music is woven into my writing and my soul - nice to find another kindred spirit

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoh Morgon

Thank you so much for the info - I struggle with this too. You're awesome!!!

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary Campbell

Glad to hear I'm not the only one struggling with this.

And Roh, thanks so much for the kind words. I'm glad you're finding the blog helpful and that you appreciate the music, too! :)

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

I try to keep my characters true to life (with the exception of a couple of lzrger-than-life types), so they tend to be restrained in showing emotion, like real people. One thing my characters do a lot of is shrug. They shrug, they shrug their shoulders, they...well, that's a problem, because I can't figure out more ways of saying it.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTravener

I write romance, too, and I have smile and eye problems all the time :) I am reading through a WIP right now so this list will be awesome. I'm going to check it out now. Thanks!

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

Great post! I will definitely be checking out those links. I had a friend read my first draft long ago and he noted how many times I used the phrase "cocked" for an eyebrow. I did a search through the Word doc and it was atrocious! :)

I keep a log of interesting words and phrases as I read as well. Glad to know I'm not alone!

Cyndi
ctefft.blogspot.com

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterpensees

Honestly, I think we all have descriptive tics and deficits. Just gotta ferret them out. :)

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngie Ledbetter

this was very helpful. thank you. this was just what i needed for my own writing. i will definitrly be checking out the link.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJewel

Totally guilty of the "smile playing at the corner of his/her mouth" issue, as well as the eyebrows (and their appropriate adjectives - bushy, perfectly manicured, etc....ugh!).

That link to RWA tips is PRICELESS! Thank you for that!

Have a great weekend!!!

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBeth Mann

I recently had to go through one of my books an extract the 1334645676878345546 times I used the word "smirk."

Sigh.

of course, then I had to cut out all the smiling too, that replaced it...

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmalia T.

thanks for the link to the tip sheet, it is great.

I have a really bad habit of using the word "snort". Makes my characters sound like a bunch of horses.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGemma Noon

Great post Roni

I did endless hours of research on non-verbal cues - there is a lot of information out there. This resource would have saved me about half of it.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElaine AM Smith

I have overused ways to breathe in my MS. Didn't even realize it until a cp caught it.

Thanks for the links! Going to check out those worksheets now.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

I think I'm always stuck on the stomach and the heart. Her heart raced, she felt her tummy twist up, that kind of thing. I will surely be checking out your links cos I write romance too. Thanks!

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMyne Whitman

THANK YOU FOR THIS, Holy Guacamole!! The PDF is sooooo helpful. Love.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSierra Godfrey

Yes! Those worksheets are GOLD. Thank you! You've posted a couple really useful links here!

Okay, my guilty pleasures include:

1) Smiles
2) Rolling Eyes
3) Eyebrows raised
4) Smirking. So much smirking.
5) Winking.

These are the things I have to red flag and knead out during revision. It's SO hard to be non-cliche when writing.

Thanks for writing such a fun and helpful post about it!

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKatrina L. Lantz

Thanks for the PDF. Some of it is very helpful! And as always, thanks for the blog mention. I'm glad the Emotion thesaurus helps! Plus in the comments section of my contest, lots of people are listing you as their fav blog, so huge Kudos!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngela Ackerman

Thanks for the link! I use smile too much, among other things.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterthegracefuldoe

Great post, Roni! LOL--I keep that same notebook. My characters are big on eye-rolling, teeth clenching, shrugging, and staring in outrage :-) I would love to take that class...maybe she'll teach it online sometime or maybe one day I'll be able to go to national. Biting my lip, sighing, and heading off to do some writing now.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

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