Physical and emotional action


Happy New Year every one! Though I will confess, my new year was the solstice when the days started getting longer. In Montana, this is a major event. I look forward to it beyond reason. Mind you, the cold is just starting, but the fact that the days are growing longer is a silver lining to the cold.

Also, in case you didn’t realize, and in a bit of shameless self promotion, Shadow City came out a week ago. Did you get your copy?

And now, onto the subject at hand: Physical and emotional action.

When writing a book, I’m obviously interested in delving into characters. Or at least I hope it’s obvious. Character drives a novel. If readers don’t care about them, they don’t want to keep reading. And that’s it. All over. You’re toast.

An important way of making readers care about the characters is to develop emotional depth. Now you can do that several ways. Obviously you can reveal how she might feel about a subject. She might think about her feelings or she might get a feeling in the pit of her stomach. She might say something revealing. But one of the best and most effective tools is emotional action.

This is action that reveals emotion. Romance writers do this very well. They have learned to demonstrate deep feeling through slight action. Now I tend to like facial expressions, like tightened lips or frowns or scowls, but they aren’t really as effective as more physical body language. Like when someone is angry and smashes their fist into a wall.

Now that example is quite obvious and cliche. So maybe the anger makes the person’s hands clench and shake. Also cliche, but getting a little bit less obvious. Better still, hand clenches, then carefully uncurls as the person tries to regain control. Or tries not to reveal the anger. Maybe the planes of the stomach tighten. Maybe his shoulders jerk and then settle. Maybe she flinches or winces. Maybe she paces restlessly, or maybe she cracks or knuckles. Maybe he drinks (kind of cliche) or maybe he gambles or does something else to excess. Or maybe he slicks back his hair, or rubs his mouth, spits, scuffs his shoe, sharpens a knife, bakes bread . . .

The key is to demonstrate emotion through action. And not just the action, but the way that the action is carried out and how that person’s words and expression echo or contradict that action.

This is from my WIP and you’ll notice that the action does particularly do anything to reveal emotion. It simply carries action:

“This is getting exciting,” Tyler said. He coughed and tears and snot ran down his face.

The caustic gas burned like acid in Max’s eyes and her nose and mouth were on fire. She swiped at her eyes, trying to see.

This next bit is a bit longer, but hopefully shows what I’m talking about:

He’s gone,” Max said in a soft, toneless voice. She stood, her shoulders slumped, hands loose at her sides.

Oak balled his fists, his head hanging down. “Dammit!” he swore.

Max brushed her fingers over his head and then bent and picked up Simon’s dripping body. Tears ran silently down her cheeks. She didn’t try to stop the; she couldn’t if she wanted to. She carried him back to where Giselle had just finished healing the second of the injured men. Both slept, their wounds vanished.

Giselle watched as they approached, her arms wrapping around herself. Her eyes were sunken and shadowed and her shoulders hunched with exhaustion. Max came to a stop in front of her. The witch looked at Simon and closed her eyes. A moment later she opened them.

“Let’s take him home.”

In this one, various people reveal how they’re feeling through small physical action. Max slumps and brushes her fingers over his head. Giselle wraps her arms around herself and hunches her shoulders. She closes her eyes. These things all reveal a deep hurt that none can really voice. But hopefully you get the deep rawness of their loss, without me saying, hey! They hurt a bunch. This is another quiver in the “Show, don’t tell” quiver of techniques.

Now the thing to remember is that you don’t need or want to make all the physical action emotional. You want to layer it in in order to draw round characters and flesh them out. It helps to make them real.




9 comments to Physical and emotional action

  • Great stuff, Di. I love the blend of emotional actions, thoughts, and dialog. I need to learn to interweave them appropriately as you’ve shown above, especially in “Max brushed her finger…”

    Another problem I notice when writing, usually first drafts, is that the emotion comes and goes in a scene. Too often my reviewers ask, “What was the character feeling here?” Even when I go back and fix things, I’m often unsure of the emotional pacing.

    Are there any methods to track or understand emotional pacing, or do you just go by feel?


  • This. I needed this example to do my characters and story justice. Too often I slip into the simpler facial expressions to show emotion, when I know it runs deeper than a simple grimace or smile. Thank you for such a specific technique post, Diana.

    (Yep, pre-ordered Shadow City weeks ago. Now I’m just waiting on Amazon actually *delivering* it. *sigh*)

  • Great stuff, Di. I love doing little things with my characters’ hands. Fidgeting is one of the great emotional “tells” in real life, and it works just as well in fiction. Thanks for the examples from your WIP. Looks like it will be a great read.

  • Di, This is wonderful. Nothing teaches like a *how-to*!
    I am behind in my Shadow novels. I need to read the previous one first. (slaps head) It’s on my TBR pile (physical book). So, I’ll get *this* one on my Kindle. 🙂

  • Razziecat

    This is the kind of thing I love playing with. Small movements, gesturs, silences, fidgeting, characters fussing with things that don’t merit that much attention, and so on. I need to write a death scene in my current WIP, and I will definitely keep this post in mind.

  • Loved the examples of physical action as emotional tells, Di! Thanks. I also like to use simple things like a character sticking her tongue out or someone saying, “Phhhbt!” to show easy affection without actually having to tell the reader that two characters are comfortable and secure with each other.

  • Dave: Emotional pacing. That’s an interesting question and I might have to think more on it. But one thing I would say is that for me, I measure the emotional pace against the rising tensions of the book and the need for emotional tension from the reader as the stakes ratchet up. I think I do it more by feel.

    Laura: Glad to be helpful! And I hope that mail hurries 😀

    David: I love fidgeting hands too. I think hands are really telling.

    Faith: I do so love my Kindle and I thought I wouldn’t like an ereader. Now . . . I do love it. But now I want them all. I don’t know why.

    Razziecat: Is it terrible to say that death scenes are a lot of fun?

    Lynn: Yes. Exactly like that.

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  • TwilightHero

    Heyyyy…I know exactly what you’re talking about. I live for this stuff! At the very least, it can make the difference in whether I read all the way to the end or give up halfway 😀

    By far my favorite tales are those that are character-driven – as you said, nothing sucks you into a yarn quite like feeling for the people involved. Ergo, one of my biggest hangups in writing my WIP is coming up with emotional actions – I’ll remember this term 🙂 – that are subtle, yet stand out enough to help convey what my characters are feeling during *insert scene here*, respective of their various goals, mindsets and personalities. So for a fight scene, the wary one darts his eyes here and there, trying to keep track of all the enemies; the cool one keeps her face blank as she plans her attack; and the bloodthirsty one dives right in… Coming up with behaviour that’s neither obvious nor ambiguous can be difficult, so it’s good to know I’ve been right to put so much effort into it.

    Great post, in other words 🙂