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Book: Writing Vivid Emotions - Professional Techniques for Fiction Authors (Writer's Craft Book 22) by Rayne Hall

Book: Writing Vivid Emotions - Professional Techniques for Fiction Authors (Writer's Craft Book 22) by Rayne Hall

categories: Book, Creative Writing, Revising and Editing, Writing Skills Reference, Novel Writing, Fiction Characterization, NaNoWriMo, Writing Craft, Professional Writing, Short Story Writing, Emotional Fiction Hooks, Fiction Writing


Rayne Hall

Rayne Hallabout this book: Here's an excerpt from the book:


When we feel an emotion, our bodies react. Our posture, facial expression, gestures, movement pattern, skin colour and tone of voice change, often without us being aware.

As writers, we can use body language to 'show don't tell' what a character feels.

Look at these examples:

He banged a fist on the table.
She slammed the door behind her.

As a reader, you don't need to be told that these characters are angry, do you? Their body language says it clearly.

These body language cues are much more effective than bland statements like:
He was angry.
She felt anger.

Body language is the number one tool for conveying character emotions. Psychologists refer to body language cues as 'tells' which is confusing for writers, since we use them to 'show don't tell'. That's why I prefer the word 'cue'.


Body language works great in dialogue. Put the body language cue in the same paragraph as what the character says, either before or after or in the middle. Then you can skip the dialogue tags ('he said', 'she exclaimed'), and you certainly won't need adverbs ('he said angrily').

Here are examples of how you can handle the body language as a dialogue attribution beat with jaw-rubbing as the cue. People rub their jaws when they are uncertain about something but consider it favourably. These three variations show the beat placed after, before and in the middle of the spoken line.

"I suppose it's possible." John rubbed his jaw.
John rubbed his jaw. "I suppose it's possible."
"I suppose it's possible." John rubbed his jaw. "If you give the order, we'll try."

Body language can emphasise what the speaker says.

Mary glanced at her watch. "Hurry up. The train will leave in four minutes."
John's face brightened. "I'd love that."


Who is the PoV character of this scene? If you show the experience from a specific character's perspective, you need to stay inside that character. Most of the time, people are unaware of their own body language, and they can't see their own facial expressions.

This means you can show only those bits of body language the PoV character is aware of or is doing deliberately - or those she observes in others.

If Mary is the PoV character, don't write
Mary's face grew pale.
A deep frown appeared on Mary's forehead.
because she simply can't see this.

Although you can use some forms of deliberate body language (Mary slammed the door behind her), it's best not to rely on body language for the PoV. In Chapter 2, I'll show you a better technique for conveying what the PoV feels.


When new writers discover body language, they often use the same narrow range of cues:

- smile
- frown
- shrug
- nod
- raise brow
- bite lip
- clench fist
- single tear

These are not wrong, but they get boring with repetition. Aim for more variety.

At the end of this book, I've compiled a Thesaurus of Body Language Cues where you can look up the emotions you want to convey and find several body language suggestions for each.


To create tension, you can use body language that expresses the opposite emotion from what the character says, perhaps because she has to hide her true feelings.

"Take your time. I'm happy to stay a bit longer." Mary glanced at her watch.

"Yes, Sir." Mary's fingers clenched around the staff so tightly that her knuckles stood out white. "It will be my pleasure."


1. Take the scene you're currently working on. For each character - other than the PoV - identify one emotion. Choose a way to express this with a body language clue. The Thesaurus of Body Language Cues in Chapter 12 has suggestions you can use.

Write a body language sentence for each of the characters, and insert it into the scene, perhaps as a dialogue attribution beat.

2. Observe the body language of strangers. Watch someone - their posture, their gestures, their facial expressions - and conclude how they feel. Write your observations down. Next time you want to show a character with those emotions, you have a ready-made description.

You may want to repeat this exercise whenever you're in a place with several people and have the leisure to take notes. For example, in the dentist's waiting room you may see a woman who clutches her bag close to her chest, frequently shifts in her seat, touches her throat and bites her lips. She's clearly afraid of the dentist. The man next to her keeps tapping his foot, glancing at his watch and frowning at the door of the consulting room. Obviously he's impatient and annoyed that he hasn't been called yet.

You can do your people-watching in railway stations, bus stops, supermarket aisles, laundrettes, coffee shops, pubs, bowling alleys, playgrounds, wherever there are people. Do you have to attend pointless, drawn-out meetings? Use the time constructively by studying body language, gathering cues for eagerness, boredom, and irritation.

Observe, analyse, memorise and keep notes. Just be discreet, and don't stare obviously at anyone. Your subjects must not notice that they're being watched.

If you can't leave the house or feel self-conscious watching people, watch a movie instead. Actors are trained to express emotion in body language, so watching their postures, gestures and facial expressions can yield a wealth of concise cues.

Before long, you'll have built an Emotion Descriptions Bank to drawn on.


Instead of stating the emotion (He was angry. She felt desire.) describe its effects on the body. Every emotion brings physical symptoms. Sometimes we're consciously aware of them, for example, when gross injustice makes us nauseous or the supervisor's constant meddling causes us a painful stiffness at the back of our neck. These physical reactions are so common that they have given rise to the phrases 'this makes me sick' and 'a pain in the neck'.

These visceral reactions serve to convey what the PoV character feels. Where in the body does she feel it? How does it feel? Is the sensation hot or cold, pleasant or painful, expanding or tight? Does it itch, throb, churn or tingle?

Write a sentence about it. You can include the name of the emotion if you wish, although this is often not necessary.

If a fiction character is angry, a novice might write 'he felt angry' which is bland and leaves the reader untouched.

Now consider an angry person's visceral reactions: churning stomach, acid feeling in the guts, tightness in the diaphragm area, quivering muscles in the upper arms, stiff neck, heat flushing through the body.

You might use these to write one of these sentences:
His stomach churned.
His neck stiffened.
Acid anger rose like undigested food from his stomach.
His biceps quivered, ready for a fight.
Heat washed through him in an angry wave.
He tried to rub the stiffness from his neck.

Let's take another emotion: desire. When a character desires someone or something, the physical symptoms include awareness of one's own heartbeat, warmth flooding the body, increased saliva in the mouth, tingling all over or just in the hands, fingers aching with the need to touch the person or object, faster breath, a pang in the heart area, a pleasant shiver all over or just in the upper body. (Erotic desire brings an additional set of reactions which I won't describe here.)

You might write sentences like these:
Her breath came faster, and her heart danced.
Warmth filled her chest, her heart, her mind.
Her fingers tingled.
Her palms burned with the need to touch his skin.
A pang in her chest released waves of yearning.

To find the right 'symptoms' of an emotion, draw on your own experience. How does desire feel to you? Where in the body have you felt anger?

At the end of this book, I have compiled a thesaurus of visceral reactions where you can look up the emotion and find relevant symptoms.


To emphasise an emotion, cluster several symptoms. You can sprinkle them across several paragraphs or combine two in a single sentence like this:

Her heart pounded and her mouth went dry. (Fear)
His throat scratched and his vision blurred. (Sadness)

However, it's best not to put more than two visceral responses into one sentence.


Don't apply visceral reactions with a heavy brush. If you overuse them with a symptom in every paragraph of your story, your writing will feel heavy and the readers may find it tedious.

Instead, cluster several visceral responses when you want to emphasise emotions, and keep other sections visceral-free.


1. Choose a situation in your work in progress (WiP) where the PoV character experiences an intense emotion: disappointment, jealousy, happiness, whatever.

Think of a time when you felt disappointed, jealous, happy. Conjure up the memory in detail. After a while, your mind will produce the physical symptoms. Write them down. Then tweak them to suit the character and situation, and insert a sentence or several into the scene.

You can supplement your memory with suggestions from the Thesaurus of Visceral Reactions Chapter 13.

2. Next time you experience an emotion - frustration, anger, desire, relief, boredom - observe the physical symptoms in your own body and write them down. You can do this in your journal, or directly into a structured file on your computer you can access easily. If you do this every time, you'll soon have a personal Emotion Descriptions Bank to draw on.

Venting troublesome emotions such as hurt, frustration and resentment on paper can be therapeutic. It's also a constructive use of your time when you're obliged to attend pointless meetings and presentations where the speaker goes on and on. Take your notebook and describe your symptoms of boredom - drowsiness, wandering attention, the need to clench your jaw to prevent a yawn. If you do this, others will think you're an attentive, note-taking listener, never guessing that you are working on a creative writing project.

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