Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 23, 2021

Showing Emotion: When, Why & How

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

Some people read strictly for information. How to make a catapult or cassoulet. What dinosaurs evolved into. When to get the best deal on a new phone.

They don’t care about emotion in a book. So we don’t care about them, either, by golly.

We care about readers who want to know how these characters feel.

  • Readers who might never swear revenge on their mentor’s killer but enjoy knowing what that’d be like.
  • Readers who fell in love with their dream man way-back-when and appreciate re-experiencing that thrill.
  • Readers who like the tense excitement of meeting dangerous challenges without actually walking dark streets at three in the morning.
  • Readers who can’t let themselves cry over a personal sorrow but welcome the relief of letting go when a character suffers deep tragedy.
  • Readers who wonder how they’d react to some incredibly dramatic situation even though their daily life doesn’t offer any such thing.

Those are the people we care about. They’re who we want to draw into a story by showing emotion in all its drama, all its dizzying highs and devastating lows, all its fervor, and all its simplicity, complexity and everything in between.

Donald Maas says "Only when a situation has heavy emotional baggage will a reader pick up that baggage and carry it.

Readers WANT some baggage to carry. That’s one of the reasons they picked up this book.

So for all those readers, the writer needs to make it clear what the character is feeling.

What makes it difficult to show emotion?

That isn’t necessarily a challenge for every writer. But why is it sometimes hard for the rest of us?

Well, there are occasionally times we don’t WANT to feel an emotion if it’s painful. (“Why put myself through that agony?”) Sometimes we don’t want to see what we’re missing if it’s wonderful. (“My heroine gets to enjoy all of this while I can’t?!”) Sometimes there’s an emotion we haven’t personally lived through. (“I have no idea WHAT he’d feel in a situation like that.”) Sometimes we’re faced with a lack of experience. (“I can see it all just fine in my head, but getting it onto a page is tough.”)

And yet, drat it, enough readers seem to want books where emotion comes through clearly that it’s worth pursuing that challenge.

When you think about books that have held YOUR interest over the years, how did they handle emotion?

Was the viewpoint character someone who could be described as relatively detached? Like Sherlock Holmes, or the on-the-spectrum guy from The Rosie Project?

Was it someone who wears their heart on their sleeve? Like the heroine of Bridget Jones’ Diary, or Jamie Fraser in Outlander, or Lou the caregiver in Me Before You?

Was it someone who tried to suppress their emotions until everything comes spilling out, like the narrator in The Book Thief or Eve Dallas in the J.D. Robb series?

We can see characters showing emotions in all kinds of ways.

And yet those ways don’t always come to mind when we’re writing an emotional scene. Which leads to the first step in showing emotion, and that’s recognizing what it IS that this character’s feeling…or trying not to feel.

Identifying an emotion makes it easier to decide how to show it.

You don’t necessarily want to take the first one that comes to mind:

  • “Let’s see, somebody shot at her so…she’s scared.”
  • “His boss just fired him so…he’s angry.”
  • “Her true love just proposed so…she’s happy.”
  • “He won the gold medal so…he’s proud.”

There’s nothing WRONG with a character feeling fear, anger, happiness, or pride. But readers will love it when you drill down a bit deeper for exactly what’s going on within this person.

How are they feeling?

Some possibilities might be:

  • Abandoned, Accepting, Admiring
  • Adoring, Aggressive, Agitated
  • Alert, Amazed, Amused
  • Angry, Anguished, Annoyed
  • Anticipating, Anxious, Apathetic
  • Appalled, Appreciative, Apprehensive
  • Aroused, Ashamed, Astonished
  • Attentive, Awed, Betrayed
  • Bewildered, Blissful, Bitter
  • Bold, Bored, Brave
  • Bullied, Busy, Certain
  • Challenged, Concerned, Confident
  • Conflicted, Confused, Contemptuous
  • Contented, Courageous, Creative
  • Critical, Curious, Cynical
  • Daring, Defensive, Delighted
  • Depressed, Desiring, Disappointed
  • Disapproving, Disbelieving, Disenchanted
  • Disgusted, Disillusioned, Dismayed
  • Dismissive, Disrespected, Disrespectful
  • Distant, Distracted, Distressed
  • Eager, Ecstatic, Elated
  • Embarrassed, Empathetic, Empty
  • Enraged, Envious, Euphoric
  • Excited, Excluded, Exposed
  • Fatigued, Fearful, Fearless
  • Flustered, Forlorn, Fragile
  • Free, Frightened, Frustrated
  • Glad, Gloomy, Glum
  • Grateful, Grieving, Grouchy
  • Grumpy, Guilty, Happy
  • Hateful, Helpless, Hesitant
  • Homesick, Hopeful, Horrified
  • Hostile, Humble, Humiliated
  • Hurt, Impatient, Inadequate
  • Indecisive, Indifferent, Indignant
  • Inferior, Infuriated, Insecure
  • Insignificant, Inspired, Intimate
  • Isolated, Jealous, Joyful
  • Jubilant, Judgmental, Lonely
  • Longing, Lost, Loving
  • Mad, Merry, Miserable
  • Misunderstood, Moody, Nervous
  • Numb, Optimistic, Overjoyed
  • Overwhelmed, Panicked, Passionate
  • Peaceful, Peeved, Pensive
  • Persecuted, Playful, Pleased
  • Possessive, Powerful, Powerless
  • Pressured, Proud, Provoked
  • Raging, Regretful, Rejected
  • Relieved, Reluctant, Remorseful
  • Repelled, Resentful, Resigned
  • Respected, Respectful, Revolted
  • Ridiculous, Rushed, Sad
  • Satisfied, Scared, Scornful
  • Secretive, Selfish, Self-loathing
  • Self-pitying, Sensitive, Serene
  • Shocked, Shy, Skeptical
  • Smug, Sorrowful, Sorry
  • Sour, Startled, Stressed
  • Strong, Stubborn, Submissive
  • Surprised, Suspicious, Sweet
  • Tender, Terrified, Thankful
  • Thoughtful, Thwarted, Timid
  • Tired, Triumphant, Trusting
  • Unsupported, Unworthy, Upbeat
  • Valued, Victimized, Vigilant
  • Vivacious, Vulnerable, Weak
  • Weary, Wishy-washy, Withdrawn
  • Worried, Worthless, Worthwhile

There are quite a few techniques for making every single one of those feelings come through clearly on the page, which next month’s Showing Emotion class will cover in more detail. And if more than two dozen people leave responses below, one of ‘em will win free registration TO that class!

Here’s the question to respond to:

What scene from any book, your own or someone else’s, sticks in your mind as an example of showing an emotion from the list above?

I love hearing about (and from) writers who do it well! And I’ll announce the winner, if there is one, on Saturday morning. While feeling, let’s see, jubilant. No, excited. No, optimistic. Hmm…

* * * * * *

About Laurie

Laurie Schnebly Campbell was honored when a friend observed, “For somebody who tends to be pretty low-key about expressing emotion, you had me crying AND laughing harder than I expected while reading your book.” She’ll present techniques for doing that (and more) from May 10-21 in Showing Emotion, an all-email class at WriterUniv.com.

79 comments on “Showing Emotion: When, Why & How”

  1. Hi Lauirie,

    I love the Maas quote and your list of feelings.

    One scene that came into my mind was the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy goes to see Lizzy at the parsonage after she excused herself from dinner due to a headache. He comes across as nervous, anxious, concerned and confused. These are portrayed by the difficulty he has in making small talk, his pacing around the room, stealing brief glances at Lizzy and immediately fleeing when Charlotte comes back. The scene makes you want to talk to Lizzy and tell her everything before he proposes.


    1. Tracey, what a cool idea for a NEW twist on Jane Austen -- add someone who could straighten 'em out more quickly and then see what else could go wrong! (I just finished "Eligible" by Curtis Sittenfeld, a modern-day take on magazine-writer Liz and surgeon Darcy in Cincinnati with all the usual characters updated as well, and marveled at how well the emotions translated to this century.)

  2. The book that stand out to me Is Barbara Delinsky's 'Commitments'. The heroine visits the hero in jail and the call from the jail guard saying "No touching", really hammers home their predicament and draws out so much emotion. In fact, many of Delinsky's books are very emotional reads. As a writer, it's something that I aspire to bring to my stories.

    In my own writing, I wrote a scene for a work-in-progress that left me emotionally drained. I was right there with the heroine, feeling everything she felt, even though I had not been in her situation.

    The scene was dialogue heavy, but had some introspection too. The reader will feel her shock, anger, frustration, stress and finally, relief.

    1. Alexsandra, that makes me want to go start reading Barbara Delinsky again. You know how you devour everything by an author, get caught up, and then forget there's been more good stuff since then? Thanks for the reminder -- and congratulations on what sounds like a POWERFUL scene of your own!

      1. Laurie Schnebly Campbell, I read her books years ago and devoured everything, lol But the one thing that remained with me was that one line from the guard. "No touching".

        She has so many good books. 'Coast Road' was another one. I even have 'Three Wishes' in French, but have not started that yet.

        I really should re-read then all, lol

  3. I'm with you, Laurie, and Donald Maas, give me a compelling character who's trying to shoulder a burden alone and I want to help him/her along...or at least stick with them to see how they do it.

    So many emotional scenes come to mind but one scene really stands out for me. It's from Jude Deveraux's Wild Orchids. I opened that book while on a beach one day years ago. The family went off to splash in the surf, and I sat under the umbrella to read. A handful of pages in, I was already invested in the hero and crying (in public) about a loss he'd suffered. The beauty of the scene was that he wasn't pitying himself or wallowing in any way. He was remembering with wistful humor and love. The way Deveraux let him expose the intimacies of his relationship brought me into that relationship and made me feel the loss of it. I thought it was brilliantly done. Kinda like your classes, Laurie. Just sayin'. 😉

    1. Debora, I'm betting that scene was all the more poignant because you were WITH your loved ones at the same time this hero was just remembering his -- that's such a wonderfully vivid image! (And thanks for the "brilliantly done.") 🙂

    2. Debora, I can't believe I haven't read Wild Orchids--because I thought I'd read all of Jude Deveraux's books...now I must look this up. 🙂 I'm loving these comments because I'm getting great book recommendations.

  4. Hi Laurie

    I love the Maas quote, something to keep in mind while writing.

    I thought of the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy goes to see Lizzy at the parsonage while the others have gone to dinner at Rosings. He comes across as nervous, anxious, frustrated, concerned and perplexed as to why he can't just declare himself and propose like he wants to. We can see this through his pacing around the room, his limited small talk, his quick departure when Charlotte returns and the way he stares at Lizzy. It made me want to hug him and sit them both down to get them together. Although, I suppose that would have wrecked the rest of the book.


    1. Tracey, what a cool idea for a NEW twist on Jane Austen -- add someone who could straighten 'em out more quickly and then see what else could go wrong! (I just finished "Eligible" by Curtis Sittenfeld, a modern-day take on magazine-writer Liz and surgeon Darcy in Cincinnati with all the usual characters updated as well, and marveled at how well the emotions translated to this century.)

  5. I adore (and envy) how Loretta Chase gives her characters, both hero and heroine, little personal hurts that connect me to the character instantly. No whining or self-pity, just "this happened which made me into this type of person". Ms Chase's writing is so skillful and "invisible" that I feel the emotions right along with the characters. I keep intending to read one of her books with notebook and pen at hand in order to take notes, but I inevitably emerge an hour or two later, awash in emotion with no clue how she did it LOL!

    1. Luanna, what a lovely testament to the strength of Loretta Chase's writing -- emerging two hours later with an empty notebook and a full heart is the nicest thing I can imagine any author hearing about their work!

  6. I'm in 'almost done with the first draft' made, and this post reminds me that I have to go back and "emotionalize" the scenes where the hero is facing his fear, and the one where the heroine and her sister finally have the confrontation about why their relationship has been so strained.

      1. Terry, congratulations on approaching the end of First Draft AND knowing right where you need to go back and enhance the emotions -- those both sound like grabber scenes. 🙂 (And thanks for the reminder to go turn on my coffeemaker, so now I won't be horrified when I discover it hadn't started by itself.)

  7. Oh boy — THIS is a fun and interesting blog! I’ve taken several notes already from comments made and your list of emotions (blog) is a great resource. Thank you, Laurie.

    My favorite all-time emotional scenes is from Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER When Claire returns to the cottage instead of going through the Stones...and in DRAGONFLY IN AMBER when Jamie and Claire are permanently reunited in the past.i Tears and laughter in the same scene. All the feels in those stories.

    Totally different genre, but Stephen King does an excellent job conveying emotion in every scene IMO. Nothing is ever boring. He’s the guy I study to learn how to use emotion on the page to trigger emotion in the reader.

    Looking forward to this class!

    1. Kathleen, you're SO right about Diana Gabaldon's reunion scenes -- even knowing what's going to happen, they still have an enormous impact! And while I've always been scared to read Stephen King, the receptionist who devoured every one of his books has recommended a few that weren't quite so scary and he IS a great pick for emotional craftsmanship.

  8. The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason was an slowly unfolding emotional dive into feelings of regret, grief, and self-loathing that I was drained after reading it. The climate during the story even reflected the emotional decline of the doctor as he struggled to save men during the horrors of WWI. Exquisite prose, but not a happy story.

    1. Lisa, I was startled at seeing "The Winter Soldier" because it made me think of the Marvel Comics movie about Captain America which must've stolen its title from the Daniel Mason book. And that one DOES sound like a compelling emotional journey, even without the happy aspects. (Although I'm hoping there are a few just to heighten the contrast.)

  9. OMG - I really cannot pinpoint an exact scene but in Jodi Picoult's "19 Minutes" at the end the reader experiences the family's "shock" when they discover who killed the people in the "mass shooting" at the school.

    1. Patti, wow, that IS an emotional kaleidoscope -- Jodi Picoult is so good at those! Whether the characters are reacting the way we'd expect or in a way we hadn't thought of but which also makes sense, there's always that sense of "oh, gosh, YES."

  10. When I think of the book that made me most emotional, it's definitely Little Women. I read that ages ago, but I still feel it! The loss of Beth hit so hard because she was an emotional center in the book and I related to her a lot. I think that's one of the best (and probably hardest as an author!) ways to get readers to feel the emotion, building it up in a way that you can't help but cry when it happens.

    1. Amanda, isn't Little Women a treasure?! I was about nine years old when Mom saw a copy in the store and instantly bought it (she'd never done that with any book), saying "you girls will LOVE this -- I used to read it over and over because there was this one scene that always made me cry." Turned out she was right, and it still does.

  11. The book that came to mind is an old classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". Huck trying to reconcile his feeling and friendship for Jim and society's perception of race at the time through the eyes of a young boy was brilliant. Mark Twain made a statement with humor and wit.

    1. Laurel, good call on showing emotion that ISN'T all about instantly dramatic things like love and death -- broader social issues can be equally compelling, and equally ripe fields for generating emotion. I forget whether it was Huck or Tom who said "All right, then, I'll go to hell" but that line still knocks me out. 🙂

  12. In my WIP I have two characters who are on a difficult journey. For one there is Ahmee. She's homeless and used to taking care of herself. No doubt her life is a hard one. Then she suffers a life-threatening illness and is brought to a hospital where she has to stay for a few weeks. She constantly wants to run, is scared, but deep down it's this feeling of vulnerability that makes her so skiddish. And then there is Colton, the male lead. He's an alcoholic and full of anger towards other people and the world in general, while in truth it's guilt eating at him for surviving captivity while his best friend died. I try to work out the feelings behind the obvious ones, but it's hard and a slow process for me.

    Thanks for the chance to participate in the class. 🙂

    1. Yvonne, what a great setup for all kinds of emotions in Ahmee and Colton -- you've got a wonderful crop to harvest there. And you're right on target thinking about feelings behind the obvious ones, which are of course perfectly valid, but getting a few NOT-so-expected emotions will keep your readers even more engaged!

  13. Hi Laurie,
    I recently read a scene in Kate Quinn's 'Mistress of Rome' that stuck with me. Thea, a Jewish slave girl has fallen in love with a closed-off, battered gladiator. Arius (the gladiator) had fallen asleep and she confesses her love, which she knows is doomed. Between his bouts in the arena and her being a slave, there's little to no chance what they've found can continue. Their love is a secret. Every moment together, stolen. So, when she whispered her to love to his sleeping form, it got me!

    1. Gina, there's nothing as poignant as Impossible Love -- and even though we tend to think everything will turn out fine at the end of a romance novel, hearing about real-life situations where it DIDN'T turn out fine makes those emotional scenes all the more heart-wrenching!

  14. Great blog post, Laurie! I love that Donald Maass quote. He also said "Unearth the significance of any moment for a character and you will reveal its universal value." I think that's a key to tapping into your reader's emotions.

    I took an all day workshop he gave and one of the things that stood out for me was "the bigger (deeper) the emotion, the smaller the details". I think it's like that "No touching" detail Alexsandra recalled. The author let that one small bit of dialogue carry all the big emotions. A small detail can be more effective than a paragraph describing a character's emotions.

    Thanks for the chance to win a spot in your workshop! Your classes are the awesome.

    1. Carrie, isn't Donald Maass a treat? That big/small thing is SO true; there are times when telling it in fewer words is more impactful than telling it in lots! And I'm dying to know, out of all your books, which scene strikes YOU as particularly memorable...although that's like asking "who's your favorite kid?" so never mind. 🙂

      1. Your comment made me think about poetry. Good poetry captures that so well--less is more. It's funny I'd make that comment because poetry is something I struggle with--love/hate relationship. However, prose or poetry, the right word at the right time can make your head and heart explode. And good prose can be poetic 😉 Thanks for sharing that great list.

        1. Ami, what a great observation about poetry! A scene absolutely CAN convey that same much-in-little impact, and just because the book contains thousands of other words doesn't diminish the joy of conveying an emotional moment (or for that matter, ANY dramatic moment) in just the right ones.

  15. The last scene in my last James McCarthy book (Cold Karma) is the one that got me. I choked up when I wrote it and every time I got to it in rewrites and edits. The scene involves love, respect, gratitude, and acceptance. It's about becoming a part of something much bigger than yourself. Every time I go back to that scene, i shake my head in disbelief, I still can't wrap my head around the fact that I wrote it.

    1. Eldred, isn't that the greatest feeling? It always makes me think of that scene from Sondheim's musical "Sunday in the Park with George" where Georges Seurat is feverishly working on his painting, describing how he has to get the colors in one man's hat just right, and at the end he gestures to the canvas: "Look, I made a hat...where there never was a hat." Choking up over your own work is even more thrilling than over someone else's!

  16. I keep reading THE SUBTLE KNIFE by Philip Pullman for mentor text. Although his books are mostly adventure and fantasy, I am intrigued by the emotions of the characters. At the beginning of SUBTKE KNIFE, Will takes his mother to Mrs. Cooper for safety. "Mrs. Cooper saw how tightly Mrs. Parry was clinging to her son's hand, and how tenderly he guided her..." After that first page of intense emotion shared through action, I couldn't stop reading about courageous Will to find how he met Lyra. See you in the May class.

    1. Beth, that's a series I'd never heard of but now reading your description has me wanting to dive into it! It's a nice reminder that emotion can be every bit as vivid in adventure and fantasy as in traditional romance and thrillers and coming-of-age stories, regardless of the characters' ages. Looking forward to next month. 🙂

  17. The scene that comes to mind is from The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. The teenage daughter watches as her dad beats her mother. They are in an isolated cabin in the Alaskan wilderness, so no calling the police. Well written and painful to read.

    1. Jacquolyn, that sounds like a memorable scene -- and one more reason Kristin Hannah is so popular; she's good at wringing the emotions. My mom just recently discovered her, and keeps asking "have you read THIS? Have you read THAT?" You can imagine how someone who loved crying over Beth March's death repeatedly loves drama with a happier ending. 🙂

  18. The ending of Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl is one that sticks in my mind.

    Lara is attending the almost deserted funeral of her very elderly and lonely great aunt Sadie, who she hardly knew and couldn't care less about, when a much younger version of Sadie appears to her as a ghost, insisting she help her find a treasured missing necklace so she can rest in peace.
    Lara finally agrees, finds a way to postpone the funeral, and the young spirited Sadie (a twenties flapper girl) and Lara begin a search for the necklace, learn a lot from each other and form a close bond.
    In the final scene, after many twists and turns, and the funeral back on (only this time with lots of mourners) Lara places the necklace on Sadie’s 105 year old body so she can rest in peace.
    Lara and the reader are left feeling joyful, triumphant, but also resigned and sad. I felt really tearful reading it.

    1. Janet, wasn't that a wonderful scene? I'm always impressed at how, on the surface, Sophie Kinsella's books seem like all fun and entertaining quirks, but then every so often there's a wham-bang moment like the one you described that takes us into far deeper waters. Talk about a nice combination of skills!

  19. Martha Wells is one of my favorite authors, in no small part because she does a really good job of presenting characters who are Not Always Good At Processing Their Emotions (a thing that, honestly, I relate to rather more than I find comfortable to admit). So I was looking for a quote from one of her Raksura books (the third one, The Siren Depths) which comes up shortly after the main character Moon -- who's been unwillingly taken from his court for reasons both complex and unclear -- manages to provoke a fight with a queen, which is the sort of thing that absolutely should never happen in this setting. I can't find the exact quote, but as he's being led away by another Consort after the fight, there's something like, "Moon realized he'd been doing that thing where he pretended he wasn't feeling anything until it was too late."

    But I'm pulling that from memory, and probably not doing it justice; so here's another quote from later in the book, after he's surprised to learn that his own queen has shown up to reclaim him: "He was starting to realize that maybe he didn’t actually know the difference between trusting people and just pretending to trust them while bracing for the betrayal."

    See also: pretty much all of the Murderbot stories.

    1. Michael, what a great example of Martha Wells NAILING the emotions of someone who prefers not to feel them -- both of Moon's realizations provide a vivid illustration of who he is. And emotion from someone who's uncomfortable with it can be a whole lot more gripping than from someone for whom it's an everyday thing.

  20. I cannot wait for this class. And I better sign up for it. I keep thinking, "Oh, that's in MAY." And well, now it's mid-April and I still think it's like February or something. I'd blame the pandemic, but I think it's actually just academic brain. *LOL*

    Well, if you know me, Laurie, and you do, you'll know I'll reference Harry Potter. I don't know if the scenes themselves are "well done" in a vivid sort of way; I think it's just when I came to the books, I felt I 'related' to Harry Potter. Perhaps I have a bit of savior complex like he does. But I think it was more like him, I longed to see my mother who had been long dead...and his aching grief at times helped me deal with mine, even after all these years. I think the emotion that was handled well for me was scenes with him and Dumbledore--where Dumbledore would give Harry space to be mad and sad and to really BE IN THE MOMENT with the grief. Growing up, my family was the kind of family that generally preferred the "stiff upper lip" or the "stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about"--so my understanding is that emotions are bad. Don't be loud with your emotions--don't be so obnoxiously happy, don't be so dramatically sad...but the thing is, I'm a dramatic sensitive person and if you're not healthily taught how to wrestle with your large emotions, any number of things can happen: you outburst inappropriately because you can no longer "repress" the emotion--and it's REALLY the wrong time or you end up festering dark emotions--and end up causing physical illness for yourself. Learning to manage your emotions is a very important human need; and I think in our society, historically at least, having emotions isn't approved of. Thus we don't learn to deal with them...and mental illness happens, and loads more...

    Stories are so important--they show us we're not alone in wrestling with these big emotions, they show us how to do it poorly (what not to do) and how to do it successfully. More times successfully--and that gives us a glimpse of how a happy ending may be for us. We can come out the other side and be good, not be broken. That's what I get when I'm in the emotional arcs of characters I've come to care about in stories. I have felt like this, this is how you deal with it. I am thankful for all the authors I've ever read who have provided roadmaps for me.

    A most recent book I read was called THE INTIMACY EXPERIMENT by Rosie Danan. It raised a lot of emotions in me; I felt the emotions of the characters were very well done and had positive resolutions. It showed how romance novels are really about the INTIMACY between two characters--and that it's not done through sex but through connection in other intangible ways. The book really changed me and changed how I thought about what romance novels do for its readers. The scene where the hero and heroine ALMOST have sex, but don't--where instead she just asks to be held--and the confusion and confliction she feels (she's a person who prides herself on being someone who LOVES sex and doesn't think it's a big deal--and this relationship with this guy really is a big deal...so the sex IS a big deal...it was just beautifully done.) Considering how modern romance novels seem to rely on sex itself building the intimacy between characters--this was a different twist and just well done.

    1. Fran, you've done a lot of good emotion-processing in your life -- and that comes through in your observations! Writers who facilitate that DO deserve all kinds of credit; they can be like heart surgeons or firefighters in making a happy-healthy-sustainable life possible for people they don't even know. 🙂 And your description of Rosie Danan's scene gave me chills.

  21. The examples that come to my mind first are nonfiction. There's Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search For Meaning", where he has to find a new reason to live after losing his whole family. There's a study of child abuse where the daughter says, "Mommy it's okay, just don't leave, you can hit me again." There's Sharon Salzberg's "Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art Of Happiness", an introduction to Buddhist philosophy. Maybe I'm having a hard time thinking of examples in fiction because in my mind, fiction has fewer examples of "show, don't tell."

    1. Meg, the idea that fiction has fewer show-don't-tell examples would horrify novelists who struggle with showing rather than telling, but your nonfiction examples are ALL good ones! And, come to think of it, we often refer to novelists as storytellers -- hmm. Food for thought.

  22. Laurie, this was a really good post for me to read as I'm once again taking the plunge into my memoir. The emotion is really hard to handle, and therefore really hard to write. Most difficult of all for me is that so many of the moment aren't just ONE emotion.

    The book is about deep soul stuff, but it follows the backbone of my high-risk pregnancy, from the moment I was told there would be no babies, to the first time I was alone with my baby girl after she was born.

    My emotions when we found out we were pregnant were all over the map - irritation (we've just moved on, and I CANNOT stand another trip up Baby Mountain), stunned joy (wow, we might get to have a baby) and panicked fear (I need to get Lovenox injections NOW so my baby and I don't die of a blood clot). Most of my emotions that day were not rational or "normal," but they were very very real and overwhelming and I want to do them justice.

    1. Jenny, wow, that book will be an incredible read -- and I can see why you're feeling some trepidation in re-living all those emotions, even the overwhelmingly good ones. Remember that Life Stress scale that ranked "giving your daughter a Christmas wedding to a bridegroom you adore" on the same level as "death of a spouse"? You'll be doing an ENORMOUS service for all the people who've been through, or are about to go through, similar experiences...but you're smart to recognize it won't be a walk in the park.

      1. The service aspect is really the reason why I began the book. I had two doctors to go to every month and two shots in the stomach every day and a Santa's-sack full of worries I couldn't dwell on so my baby could stay healthy. And with every new chapter I read in WHAT TO EXPECT, I would eagerly browse for the answers I needed and deflate when I got to the caveat at end of the entry: "..unless you have a high-risk pregnancy."

        It sucked, and I remember looking at my husband and saying, "Where's MY book?" I would certainly never dream of writing the medical book for those expectant moms like myself, but I'm for damn sure tackling the emotional aspect.

        When I watched all the hopeful, happy moms buying baby clothes and decorating their nursery, while I was afraid to let people give me so much as a card before the 34-week mark (in case I lost my precious six-percent-chance baby)... It was the loneliest feeling in the world. I was absolutely so happy for every single one of those moms, but it was very grieving to not have any of that certainty for myself.

        1. Oh, yeah, that's GOTTA be lonely! I opened my second book with the heroine (who couldn't have children) at a baby shower going through that kind of experience, and later a new friend told me she'd started reading that way-back-when but stopped because it was too painful while she was going through fertility treatments. Later, as a satisfied mom, she read it and liked it...but that's some pretty grim stuff to go through; I'm glad you wound up with a happy ending. 🙂

  23. Hi Laurie, Thanks so much for this. I love the list you provided. It is so inspiring in its specificity and the nuances of emotion that each character can carry. I love being surprised -- when a character expresses an emotion that isn't on the nose -- it can really make one see things from a different perspective. That to me is great writing. Thanks again for these words of wisdom!

    1. Nan, I love your "specificity and nuances of emotion" description of that list -- what a perfect analysis! And you're right, too, about the delight of getting a fresh view when someone's emotional response isn't what we were expecting: everyone enjoys that sensation of "hmm, what's THIS?"

  24. Hey Laurie! Awesome list of emotions! I LOVE it! I've been reading so much nonfiction lately, that I decided to dig way back to the Harry Potter books. When Snape killed Dumbledore Harry was shocked, surprised, numb, and then angry! I know it's a simple example, but probably one most people will know. 🙂

    1. Charlotte, that's a great example of showing a character's emotional progression along a very believable arc, rather than limiting it to just one experience -- it sure makes for richer reading, as well as making the whole event more credible AND more memorable!

  25. Hi Laurie,
    I always enjoy reading your posts. They always spark so much thought and get me probing my own basis for storytelling. Personally for me if I don’t have an emotional connection to a character I can’t finish the story (reading or writing) I think we can learn so much from how a character reacts to an emotional situation. Sometimes it’s a “omg, me too” or how did I not think to say that to my jerk of a boss. There’s way too many books and characters that I’ve cried over or laughed with, it’s the reason for my love affair with the written word!


    1. Margie, you're the kind of reader writers have in mind when they think about the importance of showing emotion! And, sure, you pay the heavy price of having way too many books sitting around the house (or at least I'm guessing that's the case; I know I sure do) but there's sure a tremendous reward when it comes to enjoying all those stories. 🙂

  26. Perhaps one of the best books that wreaks havoc on a reader's emotions is John Green's "A Fault in Our Stars," which captures the unlikely romance between two cancer-stricken teenagers: Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters. "Look, let me say it: He was hot," Hazel thought as she encountered this new boy in her weekly support group. But, after their first conversation, it was clear that something was quiet different about this boy.

    Their first conversation begins after a support group when both are left in a church parking lot waiting for their parents to pick them up. A mutual friend, Isaac makes out aggressively with his girlfriend. Disgusted, Hazel scowls at the public spectacle. "They're big believers in PDA [public display of emotions]," comments Augustus. The two converse about their opinions on Isaac's intense relationship. Then Augustus pulls out a pack of cigarettes and places one in his mouth. Aghast, Hazel questions, "Are you serious?....you just ruined the whole thing." She discovers his fatal flaw, why he can't be worthy of her attention. Hazel reminds Augustus of her condition--needing an oxygen tank to breathe. Then Augustus reveals that the cigarette is a metaphor, a symbol of what isn't giving him cancer. "They don't kill you unless you light them." Hazel becomes perplexed.

  27. Talk about relief: we had enough comments, so I get to give away a Showing Emotions class! Feeding the numbers into random-dot-org, the winner is #11 -- which is Yvonne. 🙂

    Just send me your email address (use the info/contact link at BookLaurie.com) and I’ll send your Groups.io invitation the week before class starts on May 10. And congratulations!

  28. Laurie, I love your list. So many different emotions to choose from. I have always loved to read stories where the characters' emotions drive the narrative. One such story is The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. It's a tale set in the Sunderbans, a region in the east of India, where humans live in fear of the drowning tides and the man-eating tigers. The unlikely bonding between a college educated Indian woman who has grown up in the US and a local fisherman is one of the many highlights of this fascinating novel. They don't share a common language and yet the author masterfully communicates the emotional bonding between them. It's one of the most poignant stories I have read.

    1. Adite, wow, emotional communication without a shared language sounds like a tremendous challenge for a writer to convey -- I'm glad to hear this author did it beautifully, and now I'm off to order a copy!

  29. What a wonderful list of emotions--thank you! I'm going to print it out and tape it to my desk. Paula McClain's The Paris Wife had me in tears for days... and I loved it! Now, I just need to go back and find out exactly how she did that... and how I can do it too!

    1. E, you're very welcome -- I love the idea of that list winding up taped to a desk! And, boy, you're right about The Paris Wife...on the surface it didn't seem like there was much dramatic emotion, and yet it kept popping up in the most unexpected places. Very impressive. 🙂

  30. There are so many wonderful books, containing eye-stopping quotes, but somehow I always return to A Tale of Two Cities, although Charles Dickens is not my favourite author. Listen to these two snippets:
    'Hunger was the inscription on the baker's shelves. Written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale.'.
    and then
    'husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.'

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