Describing Emotions in Novels

The definition of excellent story telling is transporting the reader into the minds of the characters within. If the reader feels no emotional empathy with the characters, the story will fall flat. Describing emotions effectively will bode well for the novel. But how can the writer convey emotional feelings with words?

How to Describe Emotions

An abstract noun is the labelling of a cerebral concept that is not solid and cannot be seen. Emotion words fall into this category. Examples of abstract emotion words are: guilt, fear, love, sadness and grief. These words have such broad meanings and associations they are impossible to get a fix onto. Overuse of abstract nouns of this nature can leave the reader suspecting the writer cannot make the effort to write exactly what is meant by this word. Like passive writing, the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, inclusion of too many emotion words will have a detrimental effect upon the writing.
Creative Story Writing with Emotion Words
The word "love" has many connotations. It could be used to describe the affection felt for a cat, the joys of fly-fishing or the nostalgia a scent brings. The physical sensations, too, are diverse.

Rather than take the easy route of using abstract nouns to describe an emotion, it would be a better idea to describe exactly what it feels like without using the label. This will give the reader something to work on. Doing so follows the show and don’t tell prophesy that experienced authors are familiar with. The following example demonstrates how the overuse of emotion words dog prose fiction.

"Jess sat in the small room feeling anxious and claustrophobic. A panic attack began to swell inside her. She gasped for breath with a mounting fear."

Here, the reader has been spoon fed labels for the sensations but not what they felt like: claustrophobic, anxious, panic attack, frightened. These have differing associations and could leave the reader detached from the story. In the next example, all emotion words have been substituted for an accurate description of what they felt like.

"Jess knew she had been held in this room for almost a month but didn’t care to know the exact number of days. Her chest lurched like a pair of bellows, and yet the air yielded nothing; her vision blotched over like a blizzard. She closed her eyes and waited for the giddiness to pass."

Suspense Writing

A good exercise for the writer is to consider any emotion and to think carefully about the sensations that they bring. Writing down an accurate description and using it in the novel will help create a vivid experience for the reader. The following pointers will help create a compelling read:

  • Identify and eliminate emotion words from the prose
  • When describing the emotion, be as specific and concrete as possible
  • Avoid clichés. Look for an original way of describing an emotion
  • Describe all aspects of the physical sensations of the emotion: heat/cold, what can be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, right down to minute detail.

Creative Writing Tips on Avoiding Emotional Cliches

Clichés must be avoided at all costs. An expression which was once original and incisive, looses its meaning with overuse. Examples of clichés are:

  • "Her heart melted when she saw the kitten."
  • "She felt like breaking down and crying when the results came."
  • "When she told him she was leaving, it felt like his heart had been ripped out."

These examples are also weakened by its lack of literal sense. Sometimes, it is better to edit out such sentences and to start afresh.

Conveying Emotions in Fiction

Emotion words are abstract concepts that have a universal meaning and can leave the reader feeling detached when used in the novel. A better alternative is to cut out these words and to describe accurately and in a concrete way what the emotions actually felt like. This will create a vivid experience for the reader and they will be more likely to want to turn the pages.
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