Using Physical Reactions to Convey Emotion

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I have been told by my fantastic Humber School for Writers mentor that I need to consider reducing my use of physical reactions to convey characters’ emotions, and ensure that the ones that I do use are fresh.

This is related to a previous post on revealing character through dialogue. I, like a dutiful shower rather than teller, have been diligently framing my dialogue with characters ‘reactions’ to show how they are feeling rather than saying ‘Richard was angry’. My mentor’s first contention was that the dialogue itself should convey the emotion. Now she suggests that I must examine my use of physical reactions – that saying ‘his brow furrowed’ is little better than stating ‘he was angry’ – perhaps worse. A search of the internet turned up little in the way of guidance regarding the use of physical reactions to convey emotion.

So how do other writers convey emotion in a fresh manner without telling, and without overusing physical reactions? Since I am away from home, my selection of books is limited to the one I brought with me The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre, and the books I was able to hastily grab off my host’s bookshelf in the dark while my children sleep. The selections – Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott (fantastic selection and a Christmas gift from me), Once a Runner by John L. Parker Jr. and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

Start page 149 (hope my hosts don’t mind small pencil marks in their books). The results:

1)   Good to a Fault – There is use of physical reactions to convey emotion, but no stale brows furrowed. Rather “He could feel the middle of his body empty, a dark cave running up and down through him, because his mother was sick.” And “His mouth turning down as if he disliked his own phrase.”

2)   Once a Runner – Again physical reactions are utilized, but they seem fresh and different. “Jolie Benson was sitting inside the glass enclosure, staring at the far wall desolate tears, falling into his incredible hands.”

3)   The Chronicles of Narnia – Perhaps not the best grab in the dark but still one of my most cherished reads. There are more conventional uses of physical reactions – teeth chattering, relief warming Edmund down to his toes. I still love it though and perhaps many of these phrases were fresher when the books were written.

4)   The Bishop’s Man – MacIntyre also utilizes a lot of more commonplace physical reaction descriptions – her “easy smile”, her “sorrowful smile”, “The grey eyes were unblinking” but he mixes in some unique ones. “He was seated by the window with his coat on, staring out at the bay, chewing gently on some gum.”

My conclusions are that it is okay to use physical reactions to some extent, including some more conventional ones, as long as fresh ones that are unique to the character are also included. This is still an area of research for me though and something I will be examining in every book I read from now on.

Photo Credit: danorbit.         via Compfight