Thursday, December 15, 2011

How Do You Show Feelings?

This post originally appeared October 15, 2009.

“Feelings…Nothing more than…feelings…”

The words of that old song haunt me as I struggle to polish my manuscript. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through study, reading, and feedback from critique groups is that emotions are critical in creating three-dimensional characters.

Have you heard the description, “The characters are flat?” That’s because the author is telling the reader what the character is doing and feeling, but the reader is not identifying with that character.

Reading a novel is like donning the skin of the main character, jumping into his head, and living the adventures vicariously right along with him. As a reader, I want to see, smell, hear, touch and taste exactly what the character is smelling, hearing, touching an tasting. For just a short time, I want to “be” that character.

Easier said than done.

Suppose Gertrude is mad at her boyfriend. “I hate you!” she cried angrily. Doesn’t this let us know her feelings?

Not necessarily. I don’t feel anything. I’m being told that Gertrude is angry. How do you fix it? Well, the words express the sentiment pretty clearly. But how about adding an action:

“I hate you.” Gertrude threw her grandmother’s bone china cup against the wall, where it shattered into a million pieces.

OK, that’s pretty graphic. I’m showing that she must be pretty angry to break that heirloom. Plus, the million pieces shattering is perhaps a metaphor for their relationship.

There are quite a few ways you can convey emotion in a scene like this. For example, the weather. Rain might be cascading down the window pane or beating against the glass. The wind could be shrieking or buffeting the trailer they’re in, etc. The temperature: it could be freezing in the room, or sweltering. Each brief scene description can add emotion when viewed through the character’s circumstances and feelings.

Perhaps Gertrude could be speaking in just above a whisper, but the words she says and the temperature can show the vehemence she’s experiencing. Sometimes a whisper can be more chilling and make a bigger impact that a shout. (And you don’t even need to “tell” by using an exclamation point.)

In my second novel, Follow the Dream, I struggled with a Christmas scene in the 1930s, where my main character and her eight-year-old son are boarding in a hotel room, while her husband stays in the country in an uninsulated shack to take care of their horses. Here’s what I wrote originally:

With Jake there, the cold emptiness inside her filled within minutes. They ate, popped corn, trimmed the “tree,” and then Neil played “Silent Night” on his violin. In the glow of candlelight, the little room was transformed into the cozy, warm togetherness of a home.

My intrepid critiquers said, “Yes, but what is she feeling?”

Hadn’t I conveyed that with the cold emptiness filling, the room transformed in the cozy, warm togetherness of a home? Apparently not. I was “telling” the reader what the feelings were.

Here’s what I’ve done with it. Maybe it’s still not enough, but you can see (and I hope, feel,) the difference:

After passing his plate for seconds, Jake raised his glass of wine. “This ham dinner tastes as wonderful as any high-falutin’ dish served to a king.”

Nettie clinked her glass with his, meeting his gaze with a smile. Warmth and love flooded the cold, empty void that had lived inside her since she saw him last.

Dinner finished, they took turns shaking the popcorn kettle over the hotplate burner. The hot smoky smell of the oil and popping corn filled Nettie’s senses with memories of noisy, laughing Christmases spent with her large family. While Jake propped the sagebrush in a bucket, she grabbed a needle and thread. Eating as much popcorn as they strung, she and Neil trimmed the “tree.”

Jake pointed at the festooned sage. “You missed a spot. If you hadn’t eaten so much—” He ducked, laughing as Nettie threw a pillow at him.

“It’s beautiful, and you know it,” she teased.

Nettie lit tiny candles on the sagebrush, and they opened their few packages—tobacco and rolling papers for Jake, a music book for Neil, and a halter Jake had braided for Nettie.

Then, Neil coaxed the sweet notes of “Silent Night” from his violin, and Nettie snuggled contentedly beside Jake. The melody filled her heart with the wonder and miracle of that night so long ago, and the soft glow of the candlelight transformed the little hotel room into the cozy, warm togetherness of a home.


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.
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  1. Must've worked, Heidi ... I'm feeling warm and fuzzy ... well, I feel fuzzy most of the time, but the warm thing, that's new.

  2. I'm glad this post was resurrected today. I will send a link to a client I am working with who is just beginning to learn some of these elements. Thanks, Heidi.

  3. Very interesting post! Thanks a lot.

  4. Painting those word pictures is ever so important. The viewer can almost walk into a great painting of a scene. Readers should do the same with our stories.

    Excellent piece, Heidi. This wonderful bit of writing advice will always be timely.

  5. Definitely liked and "felt" the second version more than the first. Excellent examples.

  6. Thank you for this post. My biggest weakness is showing vs. telling and it's something I work on constantly.

  7. Thanks, this story is very interesting and absorbing! I'm looking forward to reading your new stories! You wield a formidable pen, my friend! This information is really useful! It's just what I was searching for


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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