Writing Excuses 9.19: Showing Emotion
Key Points: How do you make characters show emotion without being effusive, whining, or monochromatic? Some genres want more emotion than others. Know the body and book language. Be careful of using emotion words. One theory is to start with lots of internal motivation, body language, and emotion words, then reduce it as you get farther into the book and the readers “know” how the character feels. Know the difference between a character crying and a character attempting not to cry. Struggling to deal with an emotion can be stronger than emoting all over. Pay attention to the difference between internal motivation and public display. Sometimes you need to change the emotion to make the character protag better. Beware of one tone characters, no matter how poignant the emotion is. Gallows humor can be a useful break. Let your characters hit different emotional beats. Use contrasts to bring out emotions.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 19.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, showing emotion.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] And I am Howard.
[Brandon] You can do a better robot voice than that.
[Howard] I was just trying to be as emotionless as possible.
[Brandon] Okay. So, showing emotion. We’ve had a request to do a podcast on how to have characters show emotion without them appearing effusive or becoming…
[Brandon] Monochromatic or whining. So, how do we do this? It is actually a problem, because one thing I’ve noticed is when you’re writing along, often times my YA editor wants me to show way more emotion than my adult fiction editor wants. The YA editor is always asking, “How does he feel?” Where I felt like, “Well, I’ve shown how he feels by the exclamation point, right here.”
[Brandon] But they want me to actually come up with some way… So I’ve had to be like, “Oh, I have to like say something, do something, in his head” or simply say, “He said, feeling infuriated.” Which is kind of… My instincts go against it. Whereas in my adult fiction, my editor will be like, “Oh, you showed this up above.” So it’s been this really interesting thing with me where I’ve had to learn how to show emotion in a different way for a different medium.
[Mary] Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up because it does differ stylistically depending on what you’re doing. Like the way I handle showing emotion when I’m writing the Regency books stylistically is very different than the way I do it if I’m handling say a tight third person science fiction thing. With the Regency, I’m actually much more likely to use an emotion word, where with a tight third person SF, I’m much more likely to do more body language and avoid the emotion words.
[Brandon] Right, right. I’ve found in the YA, the editor who I’m willing to assume knows the genre really well, knows that a lot of teens are bundles of raging emotions and hormones and are going to feel a disconnect from the character if they can’t get a little bit more explicit…
[Howard] You’ve got to turn the volume up enough that they can hear you over what’s already going on inside.
[Mary] I actually don’t think it’s that. This is… I actually think that a lot of it has to do with experience levels. When you are used to hanging around with people, you know that a tightening of the jaw means the person is angry, but you don’t necessarily know how to read that body language, and part of learning to read that body language comes from reading books and media.
[Dan] Yeah. I’d say that even moreso than knowing the body language, it’s knowing our book language.
[Mary] Book language as well, yes.
[Dan] We have phrases we use, like tightening the jaw, that you may not have run across if you haven’t read a lot of books.
[Mary] Yeah. There’s actually a theory which I think is interesting that towards the beginning of the book, that you need to include a lot more internal motivation of the character tied to the body language and emotion words, and that the farther you get into the book, the less of that you need to include because the reader should, by that point, know how the character is feeling.
[Howard] You’re establishing the syntax, and then you’re able to just use the syntax.
[Mary] You can shorthand it more. Yeah.
[Howard] I had a… Well, it’s still unfolding now as we’re speaking, but hopefully by the time this airs, it won’t be a spoiler. The character Elf in Schlock Mercenary is currently the executive officer for Captain Murtaugh. The previous… At the beginning of the previous story, she had been under the impression that she and Kevyn might end up in command of the whole company. So here she is, instead of being a captain, she is the executive officer to a captain. She’s almost a glorified gofer. In the first scene in this book where we see her, she has told Schlock, “You need to go up and talk to the captain.” Schlock does not like the captain and puts captain in air quotes. Her reaction to that moment was critical, because the reader knows none of this back story information. But I knew she’s mad at the fact that she’s an executive officer, and she’s mad at the fact that she’s not allowed to complain to Schlock about it, and she’s mad that Schlock is complaining about it. So I did one panel of her fuming. No dialogue, just a beat of her fuming, and then relaxing and telling Schlock, “Look, just get up there.” The whole purpose of that panel again is syntax. I wanted people to see, “Oh, he said something, and then she was upset, and I’m not sure why she’s upset, but it’s there.” I can drop that… I do drop that two or three more times before she finally confides in somebody and says… Essentially says, “I can’t confide in anybody. I’m mad, and I’m not allowed to talk about it.”
[Brandon] So how do we avoid the whininess? How do we avoid… We want to get across a character’s feeling a strong emotion?
[Mary] I ran into this problem really hard with Valour and Vanity. A lot of it also comes down to a gender thing. One of the things that happens in Valour and Vanity, and this is on the book cover blurb so I don’t feel like it’s a huge spoiler thing, but… It happens in the first chapter, too. Jane and Vincent are attacked by pirates and so are like destitute. Vincent, being a man in 1817, is very disturbed by how am I going to provide for my wife and has some depression issues. I was having a lot of problems with my beta readers reading him as whining when he voiced this. What I… One of the things that I realized is that I had to actually step back to my stage training, which is that there is a difference between watching a character cry versus watching them attempt not to. And that when you allow the character to cry, the audience no longer has to feel that emotion for them. If you want them to have a cathartic reaction to something, that you actually have to pull back and let the character… Part of the character’s protaging be the struggle to deal with the emotion. So it’s the difference between the internal motivation and the public display. That a lot of what I had to do was pull back the public display until a specific moment.
[Brandon] Yeah, I remem…
[Howard] Which is… Mary, which version did I read? Did I read the beta version or did I get… Did I read it after you’d fixed those?
[Mary] You read it after I’d fixed those.
[Howard] Because I remember when I read it, I did not have any issues with Vincent, but I can’t remember whose POV we were in.
[Mary] You’re in Jane’s all the time.
[Howard] I’m in Jane’s PO… Okay. That’s what I thought and that’s what… One of the things that I was going to come around to is that I think we start to sound whiny, I think we start to sound like we’re overemoting when we use emotion words like he felt happy, she felt sad, whatever. Because you’re coming right out and saying what the feeling is rather than stepping back and showing the outward reaction to… Or even the reaction of the other characters in the room to the person who is struggling to contain the emotion.
[Brandon] Right. This is a… Good old show versus tell can help a lot here. But I do want to give that standard warning that they give with show versus tell, shows take more words. Sometimes in an intense dialogue scene, you just want to use the emotion word, like Mary said. This is going to be your judging based on your genre, your audience, your own inclinations. A really powerful show can have a great emotional resonance which can be awesome, but sometimes that also can break up a scene in such a way that you don’t want to go do that.
[Mary] Yeah. I actually cut two scenes, one of which… And this was one of the ones that was triggering the whiny. One of which was Jane came back to the tiny apartment that they were sharing and realized that Vincent had been weeping, even though he was trying to mask it. Just the fact that she caught him at it was enough to trigger that for people who wanted him to man up. I’m like, “Really, people are… Guys are allowed to be depressed.”
[Brandon] Dan, you had…
[Dan] Yeah, but let’s do book of the week and then I’ll…
[Brandon] Okay. Book of the week this week is… Valour and Vanity!
[Howard] Goodness, we were just talking about that.
[Mary] Strange, isn’t it? So Valour and Vanity is… It’s book four in the series, but it is, as all of the books… I write them all to be standalones, but this one is… You can read this book without reading any of the others. It is a heist novel. I wrote it as Jane Austen writes Oceans 11 is the pitch for this. So it’s Jane Austen… Jane and Vincent are in Venice. Lord Byron was there in 1817 for reals. So it’s a heist novel with Lord Byron and magic and maybe a Dr. Who cameo.
[Brandon] It is really fun. I’ve read it. My favorite story about Valour and Vanity is… You had given it to me to read, and it was like six months before I was able to give you any feedback. By then it was useless for me to give you feedback. But I had read it, and I remember sitting down and talking to you and saying, “Oh, there’s one thing that really bothered me. And I’m not going to give spoilers, but this character at this certain point…” And then I stopped and I realized that was the moment before the twist had happened that made everything make sense and that is an emotion I had remembered strongly feeling and then the twist had happened. You just started grinning as you realize that’s what had happened.
[Brandon] I’m like… Then the twist explained it all, and my emotion had been that’s perfect. But I was searching for criticisms, because that’s what we do, and I’m like, “Oh, my only problem is this one thing… That then the twist of course solved.” So it’s exactly the emotional beats you want for a heist novel.
[Howard] My only problem with this book is that you made me feel the way I was supposed to feel right before you made me feel the way I was really supposed to be.
[Mary] I heart you guys so much right now.
[Brandon] So it was a wonderful book. I highly recommend it.
[Howard] Mary, are you going to read it to us?
[Mary] I do. I narrated this.
[Howard] Oh, that is awesome.
[Brandon] If somehow you have never read or listened to one of Mary’s books, and you’re still listening to our podcast, this would be the one to go get.
[Howard] We are so sorry to gush, fair listener, but you should go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership and let Mary read Mary’s book Valour and Vanity to you because it’s wonderful.
[Mary, chipmunk filter on] Thanks. Hee-hee.
[Brandon] You don’t read it in that voice, right?
[Mary] No, I don’t.
[Dan] Oh, that’d be great. Valour and Vanity as read by Betty Boop.
[Howard] No, but she did do that voice as Dan during episode like 9.3 or something.
[Brandon] You need to do one of your books entirely in the phone sex voice. Yeah.
[Mary] No. That’s a long time to listen to that joke.
[Mary] You did miss me reading one of your’s in that voice at JordanCon.
[Brandon] Oh. Thank goodness.
[Brandon] All right. So let’s move on with showing emotion.
[Dan] Okay. Here’s what I wanted to say, is that a great trick to… That I have used to help a character not seem whiny is that sometimes you need to have them show a different emotion than you think you need them to show. I’m going to give an easy example from the Partials books. I had a scene where Kira was very frustrated, and written as frustrated, she came across as whiny. What I had to do was change it so she was angry that her opinion was wrong. So rather than an indecision between what do I do, it was more of an anger at what I want to do won’t work, and that’s pissing me off.
[Howard] Yeah. Whining…
[Dan] That kind of externalizes it a little.
[Howard] Whining is often what the reader says when what they mean is emotionally monochromatic. I…
[Brandon] I use an example of this in my class. So if you watch my lectures… I’m sorry, I may have mentioned this on the podcast before. Great example in the TV show Lost, which I can explain very easily. First season of Lost, fantastic storytelling, great show that has one character whose son gets kidnapped. This character… Your son being kidnapped is a big deal. Like his son is gone, and you can imagine how powerful an emotion that is. And yet at that point, viewers universally started to hate this character. It is because this character at every moment is talking about his son being lost. It’s this strange effect, because the writers obviously are like, “Well, he’s going to care about this, he needs to mention it.” But at some point, you get these scenes that are such… Like they’re like, “All right, what are we going to have for lunch?” “Oh, we should eat this.” “I remember some of this…” “MY SON!” And the next moment is “All right. This monster is chasing us. Everyone run.” “Hide over here.” “Oh, that guy got eaten.” “MY SON!” This person had one emotion through the entire second half of that season. Even though it was a great emotion, and it was a poignant character development, the fact that he only hit this one note destroyed him as a character for most viewers.
[Mary] This is actually one of the places where gallows humor comes in most handy for breaking up a character’s emotions. Like one of the things that you’ll hear people who’ve been in combat, people who work in morgues or hospitals… The jokes that they tell are hilarious, and slightly horrifying.
[Dan] Yes. The summer I worked in a cemetery became incredibly dark. It probably has a lot to do with what I eventually ended up writing, but yeah…
[Mary] I was going to say.
[Dan] There’s no way to not turn to humor after that much dourness.
[Brandon] Right. You need to have your characters hitting different emotional beats, no matter how powerful one of those emotions is. No one can maintain that. And if they do, they become miserable to be around in person, let alone on the screen or in the book.
[Mary] Yeah, and having someone who is… Who makes jokes about their own emotional state will also make them seem more aware and more self… More intelligent.
[Brandon] Well, and…
[Howard] A place where it’s being done really well right now on TV is Granite Flats, which is the new BYU TV drama that’s come out. The seasons are available on the Internet. You can watch all of season one. I was floored by how well they were getting these characters to resonate for me. I realized as we were having this conversation that that’s because none of the characters were just showing their arc emotion. They were showing the emotions that were natural to the scenes they were in. Then when we come back around to the point at which somebody has triggered the arc emotion, it hurts. I mean, it hurts us, the re… It’s cathartic for us. It does what it… You made me feel the way I was supposed to feel at the point I was supposed to fill it is what they pulled off.
[Dan] Another way to make emotions work really well is to try to do contradictory emotions. My favorite example of this is the end of the first act of Gypsy. It’s a musical about a girl who becomes a stripper, and she has been driven and driven by her mother. So kind of the point you’re supposed to get at the end of this act is “Oh, no, I’m locked into this horrible thing” and that could be a downer. But they portray that with this… The most rousing song of the show. Where the mom is singing about how everything is going to be great, and that makes the down scene even more powerful. Because it’s contrasted with this big epic hopefulness.
[Brandon] All right. Well. That was a fantastic episode. We’re going to force one of these podcasters to give us… Oh, Mary, you’ve got one. You’ve saved us.
[Mary] Yeah. We’d talked about this because I just did the month of letters thing. One of the things that I do during this is that I let people write to my characters. It’s an interesting writing exercise. So for the pod… For your writing, I would like to invite you to actually write a letter to Jane or Vincent and I will write back to the good ones.
[Brandon] Okay. Now, they should be writing this as if they lived in the time period, correct?
[Mary] Yes. So the time period is 1817. I will write to you real time, so whatever month you are listening to this, it will probably be that month, that date in 1817. The one request that I have is that you do not mention the books because Jane and Vincent don’t know that they exist.
[Brandon] Right. You are writing as a person living in that world to Jane or Vincent or both of them. All right. Fantastic writing prompt. So. You guys are out of excuses, now go write.