Writing Excuses 9.19: Showing Emotion

How do you go about writing a character showing their emotions without them sounding whiny (or whatever the “too-much” version of the appropriate emotion might be)?

Adding to the difficulty of the exercise, how do you know where that “too much” line is for your book, your genre, and your audience?

We talk about how we’ve each faced this challenge, and how that’s been very different for each of us. Sometimes it comes down to “show, don’t tell,” and sometimes that rule flat out doesn’t work. And sometimes it doesn’t come down to a simple rule at all. (Okay, most of the time that’s what it comes down to.)



Write a letter to Jane or Vincent, and write that letter as if you were a person living in the setting of Mary’s Glamourist Histories.

Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal, and narrated by Mary, too!

10 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.19: Showing Emotion”

  1. Loved the bit about learning our emotional book-language: definitely something I need to pay closer attention to in the books I read, to see what can be plundered.

  2. One reason that YA editors might ask authors to “tell” a character’s emotions is that they’ve likely found that some teen readers aren’t able to correctly identify the emotions being presented as a “show.”

    In a recent study mapping differences between the brains of adults and teens, volunteers were asked to discern the emotions expressed in photographs of faces … all the adults identified the emotions correctly, but teenagers got the emotions wrong about 50% of the time:

    It seems to me that this could happen with visual descriptions, too. So “tightening of the jaw” might mean anger to one teen and another might think the person is trying to keep from crying or that they’re embarrassed.

  3. Good episode. I’m going to direct this comment at Mary, but applies to all the WE crew.

    In the scene that beta readers thought was whiny, I think the beta readers might be the issue, not the book itself. For example, I’m 28, and never had a girlfriend. Some people are understanding, sympathetic, or at least neutral to that fact. Some react negatively, saying I’m trying to start a pity party, and I should “man up” and “just date”. I’d imagine you’re beta readers fall into the latter group, whereas you fall into the former?

    I think you might be relying to heavily on your beta readers. I want to give 2 game examples that might demonstrate what I mean. In Half Life 2, there’s a scene where Barney gives Gordon his signature weapon, but testers hated it as it meant it took longer to get to the action. They decided to keep it in, and it was a cool little scene for fans of the first game.

    A recent famous, but extreme example, is the game Fuse. It was first revealed as a game called Overstrike, with an art style almost like the incredibles, with a kind of future according to the 60s vibe to it. However, due to feedback from focus groups and testers, when the game came out it was called Fuse, and was a generic grey brown shooter, largely devoid of personality. I recommend looking at the trailers for Overstrike, then Fuse, to see what I mean.

    Yes, beta readers/testers can be an extremely valuable tool, but you have to be careful not to let them dictate terms and write the book (or design the game) for you.

  4. I love what you guys do. I haven’t caught up to this episode yet. I’m almost finished with season 2. I listen to you guys while I work. Usually I listen to audio books or collage lectures, but I’ve been listening to you since I’ve found your website. It’s great motivation of ideas to get back at writing. I’ve finished 2 novels and 1 novella and am almost finished with a third novel. All I get back from agents is rejections, but it doesn’t stop me. Family life is hard between working a labor job, having full custody of my son, and being a newlywed, but I fight for time to write because I’ve always dreamed of being an author. You guys do a great service, thank you – and I shall let you know once I catch up.

  5. @sabre
    > beta readers might be the issue, not the book itself.
    The WE crew talked about this problem several times. In fact, they do it every time the topic of writing groups, beta readers, feedback, revies, etc. is discussed. Mary, specifically, makes the point of distinguishing between “they don’t get it” and “they don’t like what they get”.

    Your game examples are interesting. I’m reminded of the description Vince Gilligan gave in interviews about the proccess of selling the concept of Breaking Bad to networks (he already had Sony on board as producers): He got questions like “Does it have to be meth?” His favorite feedback was: “We love this story, but if we buy it, we will get fired!”

    He stuck to his guns, and created a great work of art.

    He also related one time he backed down: When his writer’s room mates convinced him not to have Walter actively kill Jesse’s girlfriend by overdosing her, but instead let him watch her choking herself to death. That scene is so much more horrifying than any cold-blooded murder could have been.

    Another interesting feedback example from BB: When they screened a first version of the pilot for studio executives, one of them mentioned that drowning everthing in music might signal lack of confidence. Vince hired a composer who would create the signature sound, but also decided to pare down the music, creating the signature “bareness” – for lack of a better word – feel of the show. (Honest Trailers made fun of a scene where only dish clanking is audible for almost two minutes, so yes, this took courage.) Compare this to “The Good Wife” where some wonderfully dramatic scenes with great acting are almost ruined by melodramatic music.

  6. @sabre I appreciate that you are trying to help, so please allow me to reassure you that I know how to use beta-readers.

    The book is a tool to provoke a specific emotion. If I am consistently provoking the wrong response, then I’m using the wrong tool for the job.

  7. This was really helpful, knowing what internal emotion displays what external emotion the audience will connect with is very important. One of the biggest challenges that I have had lately is my main female character is emotionally unstable but also extremely intelligent. It is a constant battle to get the right emotion to display.

    That actually would make a goof episode… How to write an unstable character without them becoming insane.

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