Ruby Reprise: Writing Emotion

As we approach the FOURTH anniversary of the beginning of the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood blog (yes, FOUR YEARS as of September 21….can you believe it?) we’ll be periodically running “blasts from the past”: blog posts that originally went up at least a couple of years ago. Here’s one from December of 2010:

You hear it everywhere: right now, romance editors want books that evoke deep emotion.

It’s not surprising, given the tough times we’re in, that readers want to be swept up in strong feeling—feeling so authentic and substantial they forget their day-to-day worries and just care about the characters, maybe even have a good cathartic cry. (When was the last time a romance actually made you cry? Back in the Old School 80’s, that used to be my litmus test for a “good book.”)

Evoking emotional response in readers is a tough job, and a very complicated one.  Many elements play into it, more than I can possibly cover here. But no matter how great your plot, no matter how high-stakes your Conflict and how Black your Black Moment, readers won’t get emotionally involved unless they can feel what your characters are feeling.

Writing Visceral Response:

If you’re going for intensity, it’s not enough to just name emotions: “She was so angry,” “Despair filled him.” For maximum impact, you have to evoke emotion physically, describing the bodily sensations that go with it—what Margie Lawson calls “visceral response” (and if you haven’t read her lectures on “Empowering Characters’ Emotions, head to the minute you’re done with this post).


Since I happen to be reading (and thoroughly enjoying) Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke, I’ll give a few examples of visceral response descriptions from various parts of that book:

A hollow fear shivered through her, much like the first time she’d run into a razor-clawed ratcatcher in an alley.

The soft command sent crackles of ice down her spine.

Her face was hot. Her heart beat with sickening thuds.

Panic thinned her breath, made her protest weak.

Their laughter seemed to rumble through her, leaving her strangely giddy.

She glanced at Trahaearn again, and something in the way he looked at her made her stomach hot.

Humans are sympathetic creatures. When someone around us smiles or laughs, we’re likely to do the same. When someone clutches a limb in pain, we tend to feel a jolt or throb in the corresponding part of our own bodies. When we read a description like those above, we have a sympathetic response—a little dash of adrenaline, a little quickening of our own heartbeats.

Of course, as Margie Lawson warns, descriptions of visceral response should be used sparingly, or they lose impact, and turn an emotionally-taut read into sloppy melodrama.

Keeping it fresh:

Our physical experience of emotion tends to center in a few key places: spine, belly, face, chest, heartbeat, breath. And those are the places authors mention most often. But those aren’t the only places in the body that experience our emotions.

Here’s where writers can steal a technique from actors. Actors are often told that if you want to convey emotional states authentically onstage, you need to concentrate on how emotion affects the body.

Close your eyes, and imagine a particular emotion as strongly as you can. Envy, anger, lust, joy, surprise, fear—take your pick. Really try to conjure up its sensations in your mind.

Now pay attention to your body. Where do you feel that emotion? Is it a weight on your shoulders? A buzz in the pit of your stomach? A hot flush up your throat? A flutter in your chest?

What about other parts of your body?

Pay attention to your skin—the skin of your cheeks, the skin of your chest, the surface of your hands, the soles of your feet. Is it a hot sensation or a cooling one? Soft or sharp? Tingling? Prickling? Chills? Or a big overwhelming rush?

Pay attention to the larger muscles of your body. Are they contracting or relaxing? Do they feel weaker than normal, or tensing for action? What happens to the pace and intensity of your heartbeat?

Are the sensations you feel on the surface, or deep? Do they make you feel slow and numb, or restless and energized? Do they make you move or keep still? Is there pressure involved, and, if so, does is it pressure bearing down from the outside, or pressure threatening to burst out from within? Do you feel heavy or light? Is the sensation closer to pleasure or to pain?

Are there metaphorical ways to describe the sensation—tearing, burning, crumpling, blooming?

Similes—like a cold drip of water? like stepping into sunlight? like a fingertip brushing the back of the neck?

Pay attention to parts of the body writers often overlook: scalp, fingertips, tongue, toes, underarms, tips of the ears, genitals, breasts, shoulders, knees, bridge of the nose, veins of the arms, inside of the skull. We feel emotion in all of those places.

If you think about how many parts of the body are involved in emotional response, and how varied the sensations really are, you can describe visceral response in more interesting ways, and get past the fallbacks of “heart thumping” and “chills going down the spine”:

a chill swept over her lips and the back of her arms

a weight plummeted from his throat to his gut

her tongue went brittle as a dried leaf, and her throat clamped shut

every muscle in his torso clenched, going hard enough to crack

his knees felt like rotted wood—one step forward and they’d collapse

her blood went thick, thumping sluggishly through her veins

Put it in motion:

Remember, too, that visceral responses affect how you carry your body, and how you move in response. In writing, you can communicate a lot of emotion through the actions they trigger, whether it’s sagging against a doorframe, or punching a hole through a wall, or fretting fingernails along the hem of a shirt.

Readers (and editors) love action, and almost never consider it “overwriting.”

This is a good thing to remember when you’re in another character’s POV and the emotion has to be inferred by observation.

A couple examples from The Iron Duke again:

She rubbed her hands against her sleeves, as if she’d suddenly been struck by gooseflesh.

The adventurer …watched the aviator captain with hooded eyes and a set jaw. Whatever conversation had passed between the two…apparently hadn’t been a pleasant one.

Here’s a passage from early in The Hunger Games, in which the narrator’s sister has just been chosen by lottery to be a combatant in a battle to the death. I especially admire it because there’s no explicit mention of emotion at all, and yet it’s an incredibly intense scene; you know exactly what the narrator (and everyone around her) is feeling via purely physical detail:

And then I see her, the blood drained from her face, hands clenched in fists at her sides, walking with stiff, small steps up toward the stage, passing me, and I see the back of her blouse has become untucked and hangs out over her skirt. It’s this detail, the untucked blouse formed a ducktail, that brings me back to myself.

“Prim!” The strangled cry comes out of my throat, and my muscles begin to move again. “Prim!” I don’t need to shove through the crowd. The other kids make way immediately, allowing me a straight path to the stage. I reach her just as she is about to mount the steps. With one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me.

“I volunteer!” I gasp. “I volunteer as tribute!”

Putting it all together:

Here’s a nice passage from the first chapter of Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, in which the heroine, Annique, has just been manhandled in prison by a captor who’ll soon return to torture her. Bourne neatly combines action, visceral description, simile, external and internal dialogue and direct naming of emotion, and somehow makes it all seem admirably understated and very much in Annique’s gutsy, darkly funny POV:

“Pig,” she whispered to the closed door, though that was an insult to pigs, who were, in general, amiable.

She could hear the other prisoners, the English spies, making small sounds on the other side of the cell, but it was dark, and they could no longer see her. She scrubbed her mouth with the back of her hand and swallowed the sick bile in her throat. It was amazingly filthy being touched by Leblanc. It was like being crawled upon by slugs. She did not think she would become even slightly accustomed to it in the days she had left.

She pulled her dress into decency, and let herself fold onto the dirt floor, feeling miserable. This was the end, then . . . . .

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was strange to know her remaining breaths were numbered in some tens of thousands. Forty thousand? Fifty? Perhaps when she was in unbearable pain later on tonight, she would start counting.

I’ve heard a lot of readers of The Spymaster’s Lady say that they feel like they’re right there with Annique in that opening scene, and I think a lot of it has to do with the many ways Bourne makes Annique’s emotional reality physical.

Here’s to keeping it physical, folks!

What other factors make a book emotionally intense for you? What’s the most emotionally intense book you’ve read in the past year?

If you’re game, choose an emotion and write a quick visceral response line locating the emotion in some part of the body other than spine, chest, or gut, and share it with us today!

24 responses to “Ruby Reprise: Writing Emotion”

  1. Fantastic post, Elisa, and some great examples, too. I often get hung up on writing emotion, so that tip on keeping it physical really helps. 🙂

    The most emotionally intense book I’ve read (or re-read) this year is Anne Frank’s DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL, which many would know is a true story. I read it just after visiting Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam last month — almost 71 years to the day she and her family went into hiding there from the Nazis. It was overwhelming to read the book because I’d actually touched the same walls, walked the same steep stairways, breathed that still air in the house that she described. And then to know her life was cut tragically short… I can’t remember the last time I sobbed like that after reading a book. I’m *still* affected by it.


    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Oh, Lord, yes–that book is so powerful. She has that direct adolescent way of telling you how she feels, but in such a mature voice. And to know what happened to her…. It’s beyond heartbreaking.


    • June Love says:

      Vanessa, I don’t think one could really understand the depth of your emotion without experiencing it firsthand. With that being said, your description comes close. The realness of it grabs you and stays with you.


  2. jbrayweber says:

    Always great advice and examples. Thanks for the refresher, Elisa. We all need a reminder of these from time to time.


    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Thanks, Jenn.

      Right now I’m really working on “keeping it physical.” Trying to think how people stand or move or sit or keep their hands busy when they’re feeling certain things.


  3. Great post from the past, which I really needed today, having taken time off and now getting back into the groove. Awesome reminders and examples are always a great way to jump start your work. Thanks, lady!


  4. Tamara Hogan says:

    I really look forward to your ‘teacherly’ posts, Elisa! Great examples.

    The most emotionally intense book I read this year is actually a non-fiction book: “Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies,” a collection of essays by Chris Kluwe. We share political leanings and he’s concerned about many of the same issues I am. For a taste, from yesterday’s Buzzfeed: 12 Life Lessons Learned From NFL Punter Chris Kluwe.

    Heads up – several of the life lessons are conveyed using naughty words. 😉


    • Elisa Beatty says:

      LOL, Tamara! Even if I completely leave the classroom someday, I’ll still be a teacher. It’s in the blood.

      And I haven’t read “Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies” yet, but I love some of things I’ve heard Chris Kluwe say. Will have to get the book!


  5. Still a fantastic post, Elisa! This is the area of my craft I’d like to “beef up” and study a little more in depth. I picked up Laura Griffin’s SNAPPED a couple nights ago and was struck by how the first several pages zoomed by, and had my heart pounding. (It’s a romantic suspense, and starts in action, with a shooting at a college, from several people’s vantage points. Powerful writing.)


  6. Rita Henuber says:

    Thank you for this. I need daily reminders on emotional responses. Ugg.


  7. June Love says:

    Loved the post today even more than I did the first time around, and I’m sure I loved it plenty back then. 🙂

    Probably the most powerful passage I’ve read recently was Vanessa’s description of touring Anne Frank’s house. I know that isn’t exactly what you asked for, but her words touched me.

    Many times when tragedies are depicted on screen, I believe people tend to view these events as fiction. However, in the end, they are still tragedies. Seeing in person something from history that you’ve seen or read about, I would imagine it’s much like a heavy sadness that weighs you down in a momentary depression at the realness of another person’s suffering.


  8. Gwyn says:

    This is STILL a fabulous post. Sometimes, in the trenches, things like this slip from our muddy fingers when, if held, they can pull us out. Kudos, Sis.


  9. Hi Elisa, Thanks for this post. Writing fresh body language is hard, hard, hard!


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