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Monday, December 05, 2011

Showing Physical Emotional Responses in Fiction

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

A character's physical response is a visible reaction to the emotional feelings they're experiencing whether it be from another person's treatment, a current circumstance, a memory, or an impending fear of the future. Most of the "show and don't tell" rule can be mastered through this one process. A writer must know when and how to apply it seamlessly throughout the story without interrupting the pacing and flow of progression, while making it seem realistic and believable.

Think about how your characters should logically react to their current situation. Layer in these details as you unfold the story. Love isn't immediate nor is hate, but attraction can be instant, as well as dislike. The instant response is usually to something a character sees or hears before knowing all the details.  

There are 2 types of physical emotional responses:

1) Inner Physical Response - How a character feels inside, including their thoughts in response to something. These responses can only be shown through the character's POV to whom it is happening. It happens in the narrative part of the story.

2) Outer Physical Response - A visible response that a character shows. In other words, we will be able to see it if we're watching them on stage. It can occur in a character's behavior, action, body language, expression, or dialogue.

Remember, the writing process should always be: action = reaction

Something happens, then your character must react. This process must take place on every page, not once or twice in a scene. It's a constant rhythm and if you haven't yet found you're writing voice, this is the beginning process in finding it. Think of it this way, every song has a beat, but not every song has the same beat. The rhythm of your writing voice works the same way.

Primary Emotions & Secondary Emotions
While studying emotions, I've seen lots of theories and charts to determine primary vs secondary emotions. I do believe there is a primary set of emotions that lead and/or stimulate secondary emotions and that those often branch out into other layers of more specific emotions. 

Out of all the charts and images I've seen, the one I like best is Parrott's Emotions by Groups created in 2001. The group chart is more like a genealogy tree with the basic trunk consisting of primary emotions, which branch out into secondary emotions, and then extend to more specific emotional feelings. It's a great chart for authors who are working on building emotion in their characters to show the stages a character might go through as they head toward the climatic moment in the story. 

The progression to love might look like this:

Attraction + Desire + Tenderness + Caring = Love

The progression to hate might look like this:
Dislike + Envy + Jealousy + Resentment = Hate

Below is Parrott's Tree Chart with a few of my modifications:
(Click the image below to make it larger.)

Examples of Showing Primary Emotions
(from Highland Sanctuary)

Showing Love - With gentle restraint, he lowered his lips to hers. The soft touch soldered them together, kindling a passionate warmth that flowed through his body like a current. He dug his fingers into her silk black hair, savoring every moment.

Telling - He kissed her with all the love he felt in his heart. 

Showing Joy - Yet, in spite of these people’s poverty, their eyes glowed with a passionate joy he couldn’t fathom, not the listless melancholy one would expect.

Telling - In spite of their poverty, joy filled their eyes. 

Showing Surprise - Her red eyes widened in pleasant surprise.

Telling - She was surprised. 

Showing Anger - Serena whirled, her green eyes blazed with fire.

Telling - Serena was angry. 

Showing Sadness - Fresh tears flooded her eyes and she sank back on the bed, rocking.

Telling - She sat on the bed weeping in sadness.

Showing Fear - Fear wound inside her nervous chest. Her skin prickled as a small shiver raced up her spine and crawled around her neck.

Telling - Fear gripped her insides.

Showing Action/Reaction Using Physical Emotional Response to Fear
(from Highland Blessings)

A savage barbarian riding a fierce gray stallion charged toward her, his army in quick pursuit. Together, the lead warrior and stallion embodied power. He led them as befit a king, but when his gaze fixed on Akira...

...her blood ran cold. “Lord, give me strength,” she murmured. She would not run. No, she would stand and wait for him.

Her blood ran cold is an inner reaction showing fear. Her brief prayer is an outer physical reaction, also showing fear and calling on divine help. She would not run is an inner decision. It shows courage in the face of fear. It shows character.

An army of warriors rode toward her. In spite of her fear, she stood firm.

Showing Action/Reaction Using Physical Emotional Response to Attraction
(from Highland Sanctuary)

He inched closer. 

Serena's heartbeat quickened.

Sometimes simple is more powerful. He visibly moves toward her. It's an action one can see if watching them. Her reaction is internal, something that no one can see. She has to deal with her internal conflict before there is a physical reaction that can be seen. This internal conflict is in Serena's POV and let's the reader know why she makes her next move.

Reaction Continued
Fear of the unknown fluttered through her, along with a fierce curiosity to feel his lips upon hers. The war waging inside her didn’t feel right, and she pulled out of his grasp, standing to her feet.

There are times when a reaction isn't immediate. Even the reaction can build suspense or it might be necessary to show a character's agonizing decision in how to react.

If these various levels of characterization seem overwhelming, my advice is to go ahead and finish your story. Then during the editing process, layer in more physical emotion.


I enjoyed this post. Great tips - all very important in showing and telling.

Thanks, Loree. I'm glad it was helpful.

This is really good information. Thanks Jennifer!

Brilliant, thank you Jennifer!
Yvette Carol