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Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Emotional Matters

December and January tend to be rather… fraught where I work, and this year is proving no exception. So far we’ve had a server crash, a critical bug that only surfaced with a very specific set of unusual data, and – inevitably – someone screwing up in the kind of way that causes everybody else (aka me) a ton of problems. And we’ve got a month or so of peak time to go.

Yeah, I’m just a tad on the distracted side, although to be fair, when am I not?

In any case, today’s thrilling installment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide is covering writing emotion and some suggestions for doing a better job of it. As always, this was written several years ago and has not been edited. I’m just reposting the thing.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Emotion and how to make it happen

Oddly enough, emotion is something a lot of pantsers have trouble writing, and I’m no exception. I think it’s because many of us feel the emotions of our characters as we write them, with the result that we see more on the page than is actually there.

It’s rather an odd thing: first we have to feel the emotion ourselves. Then we’ve got to depict it well in print. After that, if we did it right, someone we’ve never met reads our book, and feels the same emotion we started with.

The key to the transition is words, and powerful words. For instance, if you use the word ‘yawn’ a few times in a scene, you can guarantee that a high proportion of your readers will start yawning. That’s one of the best known trigger words. ‘Itch’ is another one. Describe the crawling skin and maddening, prickling itch of an allergy rash, and your readers will be trying not to scratch – and often they’ll be feeling itchy in the same body part where your character is itchy.

This, fellow pantsers, is applied, even forced, empathy. Our goal is to make other people feel the way we do, using only words.

So how?

People-watching is good for this, as is taking note of how people you know respond to emotions. There’s always going to be a layer of social conditioning on top of the human-universals: if it’s not done for men to cry in public – or at all – then your male character suffering terrible grief is going to try to divert it into a socially acceptable channel. If women are expected to make with the waterworks at any moment, then your female character probably will. And so forth.

There are a whole lot of physical cues you can use to depict emotion. Someone shuffling along with slumped shoulders and head bowed is certainly tired – maybe even weary. Add quick gestures to wipe their eyes, and you have someone who is utterly miserable and wants to be anywhere else.

Nervousness and fear will show in things like more sweat (which smells different than normal exertion-sweat – it’s stronger and sharper), dry mouth, agitation as adrenaline starts flooding their system. They might wipe their hands on their clothes, because their palms are sweaty, and they could press their hands flat on something so they don’t clench into or onto the nearest object. It’s an instinct thing: scared people grab something to hang onto and hold so tight their knuckles show under the skin. Often they’ll go pale: that’s the fight/flight reaction redirecting blood flow towards the muscular system to better enable explosive action.

Happiness shows in walking straighter, with a bit of a bounce to the step, shoulders back a bit, and open and relaxed kind of posture. You don’t even need smiles – those are usually to signal to someone else that you’re happy.

These are all external cues, things someone else will notice. There are plenty of internal cues as well, things you can use without stating the emotion involved.

Your character’s chest aches, his stomach clenches, and his heartbeat increases: he’s probably scared. His eyes burn and his throat closes on him: grief. His muscles are tight, his heartbeat increases, his teeth clench and he wants to clench his fists: anger. Everything feels light, heartbeat is slow: happiness. His face gets hot, he wants to dig a hole and pull it in after him: embarrassment.

I’ve personally found that emotion cues best when I don’t actually mention the emotion in question, just describe its effects on the character who’s feeling it, and in many cases their attempts to deny that this is what they’re feeling (usually because in the spirit of ‘things get worse’ they’re in a situation where giving the emotion in question free rein would get them killed).

Here’s an exercise for those who have difficulty getting emotion across: write a short scene (no more than a page) from the point of view of someone feeling an intense emotion they can’t allow anyone else to see. Now give that scene to a friend to read. Afterwards, ask them what they thought your character was feeling. If you’ve done it right, your reader will have the right answer. If not, ask what your reader would have expected someone feeling that to do or feel – and try the piece on a few other people because there’s always the chance you’ve been getting feedback from someone weirder than I am who totally mis-cues emotion. (If you have the misfortune to totally mis-cue emotion, find people who will tell you what the emotional cues should be for the emotion you want readers to feel, and build up a reference list of them. Aside from anything else, it will let you pretend to be like everyone else and possibly save you a lot of trouble).

As always, read books where it’s done well and take mental or actual notes on how the author does it. Sarah is excellent with this, as is Terry Pratchett particularly in his later books (Snuff has several magnificent examples). If you’re looking for strong emotions that are kept beneath a socially acceptable façade, you can’t do much better than Georgette Heyer (A Civil Contract has possibly the best example of a woman desperately in love with someone – and never once lets him see this because she knows it would repel him).

I don’t necessarily recommend pumping your friends for information about how it feels when their spouse dies or some other tragedy occurs – although if they know you’re a writer, they might well know to expect this – but do observe how they react. We’re writers: we’re going to observe and take mental notes anyway. The whole time I was driving (1500 miles, two and a half days) with a broken ankle, I was mentally taking note of the way the way my foot swelled up, the nature of the pain – the burning under my skin that made me whimper, the flashes of white and the nausea if I didn’t have the foot absolutely straight when I was hobbling around, how it never ever stopped hurting, just fluctuated between bearable and uncontrollable whimpering… all of that – and how I responded to the whole ordeal.

The more emotion you can show through character action and physical cues, the more chance your readers will feel it too. And that should always be the goal.

  1. paladin3001 #


    December 21, 2017
    • Mutual, I’m sure.

      December 21, 2017
  2. Is a pantser’s guide, unpantsing us?
    Good stuff.

    December 21, 2017
  3. Good emotional impact commonly lies in the difference between an external description and an internal one (that is, did you back away and describe it, or did the character experience it?) As a quick example,

    I was so angry, I saw red and wanted to kill him with my bare hands.


    Around me the world went red, and I longed to feel his neck pulping between my fingers.

    December 21, 2017
  4. Draven #

    don’t forget your emergency pants… er.

    December 21, 2017
  5. sam57l0 #

    I was rather zombified for about two weeks after my wife died. Pretty much out of it. Had to hold myself together as best I could for the kids.

    December 21, 2017
  6. As far as emotions go, it’s not hard to get readers to cry tears of grief. I read a story a year or two ago where a family is stranded in space, and at one point they tell their little boy they’re going to have to put his cat out the airlock because she’s dying anyway and they can’t spare resources for her. The next morning, he and the cat are both gone, and he’s left a note that he went out with her because he didn’t want her to die scared and alone. For me, at least, that one hurts just to think about. Even now.

    The real challenge is to get people to cry tears of joy.

    December 21, 2017
    • Ugh. Gutpunch. I don’t even want to think about that, let alone about writing that in a way that it would make plot sense and be a necessary part of the story. *shudder*

      December 21, 2017
      • There’s a reason I always try to have at least one happy character in any longer story I run. It’s harder for me to do, to pull off effectively and in a way that doesn’t jar the reader.

        Folks with a general positive attitude can’t be cookie-cutter, and still need the range of emotion that normal people have. If they’re positive and upbeat in situations that aren’t, it gets creepy. Or signals sociopathy. David Drake does an excellent job creating a believable character like this with his Aubrey/Maturin series (Lt. Leary).

        It’s also a weathervane for the story arc. When things get serious and your happy character begins to buckle down and get focused, it jumps out. Stoic bada$$es are pretty easy to write. The clowns, the easy-going pranksters, the content, the bemused, the perky-joyfuls make a story richer and better for the reader to get into, I think. As long as it’s done right, of course. *chuckle*

        December 21, 2017
        • And when Constance the Constant Cusser stops cussing and gets cold-focused… somebody else is about to have a Very Bad Day.

          December 22, 2017
        • Mary #

          Used that in Winter’s Curse. The main characters are foils: one hopes they will escape the title curse, and puts forth all the plans to do so, the other has at most a glimmer of hope that the first can, but no more.

          The first one gives up in a moment shortly before the climax.

          December 23, 2017
          • snelson134 #

            “The first one gives up in a moment shortly before the climax.”
            General Patton would certainly call that a bad idea:

            “For in war just as in loving, you must always keep on shoving
            Or you’ll never get your just reward.
            For if you are dilatory in the search for lust and glory
            You are up shit creek and that’s the truth, Oh! Lord.”


            December 23, 2017
            • Mary #

              She gets better. But how can you indicate exactly how black things are when she’s still bubbling with hope?

              December 24, 2017
    • The raw edges of grief, sadness, and anger are *easy* tricks to pull. Fear is also not so hard to sprinkle in. It can get old, very quickly, for the reader if there is *no* upswing. Unless all you want to write is steadily descending grimdark, and there is a market for that…

      But it’s quite a bit narrower than the market for a broader sweep of emotion.

      December 21, 2017
    • And right there is probably why I will never write a story set in a severely limited resource situation. Nope. Don’wanna.

      December 22, 2017
  7. Dorothy Grant #

    When it comes to cuing emotions, a starting baseline I’ve found helpful was The Emotion Thesaurus –

    From there, books like Joe Navarro’s What Every Body Is Saying, for body language – and Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence, which is good at “violence happens! How do you react, emotionally, physically, and intellectually?”

    What other ones do you recommend?

    December 21, 2017
    • Second The Emotion Thesaurus. I actually came to the comments to suggest it as well. 🙂

      December 22, 2017
  8. I did both improv and a couple of acting classes back in high school and college. (My mom was a little afraid I would switch to a theatre degree—nope. I enjoy it, and trying to make a living from it would kill that enjoyment.) There’s a lot that you can learn about expressing emotion when you either have to amplify it or shut it down.

    1. We had a professional improv teacher come and do exercises with our group. One of the exercises was sitting someone down in front of us and have her display no expression as he described a number of different emotions to us, from fear to anger to grief—and they all worked, because what we built up in our minds was the context where she would be feeling those things and not reacting. The pantser take-away is that you may want to understand why some people under-react, and the reasons why someone might do so even if they’re not inclined to.

    2. A physicality class had us go through a number of different sorts of exercises. One of them was to pick an animal to go with a character, and do the physical motions of that creature while interacting as that character. So, for example, I picked a heron for an interfering old busybody, craning her neck into everybody’s business. The take-away here is that one way to get at emotions is to go to something else entirely. Maybe it’s a smell or piece of art, or animals, but sometimes it will help you come at things from another angle.

    December 22, 2017
  9. paladin3001 #

    Oh, just a heads up. Dean Wesley Smith is giving away a lecture for Christmas.
    Details here:

    December 22, 2017

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