Putting emotion on a page.

A post by James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog: Oh, What a Feeling: How to Show Character Emotions

Bell says, let’s consider an intensity scale from one to ten, with one being low intensity and ten being high. Then he says: My rule guideline is that any emotion below 5 can, and usually should, be named. If Nancy is worried about how the meatloaf will turn out, you don’t have to go into sweaty palms and racing heart. That’s too much (unless the meatloaf is being prepared for Hannibal Lecter and the cops are nearby). Just write, Nancy was worried about the meatloaf.

But when you go over 5, you should show the emotion. The goal is to help the reader feel, not just know, what the emotion is.

And by “show,” he means physical reactions, actions, dialogue, setting, thoughts. I like the inclusion of “setting” here. Bell uses a Steven King excerpt to illustrate:

It was a Motel 6 on I-80 just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. The snow that began at midafternoon had faded the sign’s virulent yellow to a kinder pastel shade as the light ran out of the January dusk. The wind was closing in on that quality of empty amplification one encounters only in the country’s flat midsection.

Fading light, dusk, wind, emptiness. We are being set up to feel the inner life of the character even before we meet him.

I mean, I wouldn’t immediately want to read this, but Bell isn’t wrong. King is establishing the character via the setting, which is a great thing to do.

Good post, good examples. Also, I happened to trip over related posts at the same time I noticed the one above, so also —

Writers Helping Writers: How to Avoid Clichéd Emotional Reactions

When our character’s feelings are clear and logical, they trigger the reader’s emotions, making it harder for them to put the book down. Character emotion is, in my opinion, the most effective and longest lasting hook in our bag of tricks, so it’s imperative that we get it right in our stories. 

Emphasis in the original. This post declares that you should know your character, including their general style, their emotional range, and their response to stress. The post then offers two examples of characters whom we know and how we express their emotions in a way that is true for each character. The examples are interesting. Let me show you the first tiny, tiny bit of each snippet of dialogue that is supposed to express emotional responses appropriate for each character.

***

A) Character A: Dionne
Personality: Respectful, cautious, sneaky
Emotional Range: Reserved
Fight-Flight-Freeze Response: Flight
Emotional Dialogue Cues: Speech gets short and clipped; fidgety hands; doesn’t meet people’s gaze

“So how’d the party go?”

Dionne plastered on a smile and buried herself in her Instagram feed. “Great.”

“See, I knew you’d have a good time. Who was there?”

Her mouth went dry, but she didn’t dare swallow, not with Dad watching her over his coffee mug. Despite the hour, his eyes were bright and searching, twin spotlights carving through the mocha-infused fog.

Next

B) Character B: Beth
Personality: Bold, confrontational, impulsive
Emotional Range: More demonstrative than reserved
Fight-Flight-Freeze Response: Fight
Emotional Dialogue Cues: interrupts people; volume rises; defensive physical cues

“So how’d the party go?” Dad asked, sliding into a chair at the table.

Beth looked up from her phone, her heart rate kicking up a notch. “Fine.”

“See, I knew you’d have a good time. Who was there?”

She rolled her eyes. “Sarah, Allegra, Jordan—you know, the usual.”

***

The thing I find interesting here is that both of these examples sound to me A LOT like ChatGPT or some other AI generated them. To me, the reactions of both Dionne and Beth seem weirdly over the top and overly physical and just overdone, in a way that feels to me like generated dialogue. So, I opened up ZeroGPT and entered the full sample of dialogue from each sample provided by the post. One came back human and the other 40% generated. I tried another couple detectors and both came back human. I guess my conclusion is that they sound pretty bad and fake to me, but my personal sense of fakeness is either not that great, or else detectors aren’t that reliable (or both).

Regardless, I suggest that it might be best to dial it back from “her heart rate kicking up a notch” or “plastered on a smile.” These kinds of “SHOW THE EMOTION” tags look seriously overdone to me. I like movement tags, but I don’t like these movement tags at all.

I’m trying to think about what I mean by “overdone” here. Here’s what I mean: Using “her heart rate kicking up a notch” as the second line of dialogue in a conversation seems —

(a) self-conscious; like the author is thinking, “Oh wait, I need to show the emotion here, how can I show the emotion?”

(b) overdone; like why would someone have this huge reaction to a simple inquiry about how the party went? In context, this might work fine. At the tippy top of a snippet of dialogue, with no obvious reason to feel anxious about this conversation, it just looks bizarre.

(c) metaphorically strained. Twin spotlights carving through the mocha-infused fog, really? This kind of phrasing, at least here in this snippet of dialogue, doesn’t look creative and fun to me. It looks silly. And on top of all that, I guess at least some of these bits of dialogue look —

(d) cliched, or an AI detector wouldn’t be tagging any of it as possibly generated.

And, I also sort of think that when you ask yourself to many questions about your characters, and write out character descriptions, and pin them down in a character sheet like:

Personality: Bold, confrontational, impulsive
Emotional Range: More demonstrative than reserved
Fight-Flight-Freeze Response: Fight
Emotional Dialogue Cues: interrupts people; volume rises; defensive physical cues

You are just asking for a problem with being too self-conscious about your characters and too self-conscious about what they do and say and how they do and say everything, when there’s really no need for it. I want to say, “How about relaxing and just writing the character like she’s a real person?” Which says a lot about me as a writer, I know that, and much less about how anybody else should write. But that spotlights-through-a-mocha-haze does look silly to me.

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5 thoughts on “Putting emotion on a page.”

  1. Got to say, the ‘mocha-induced fog’ caused my suspenders of disbelief to snap. Unless the kitchen/wherever they are is a walk-in fridge, no hot drink I’ve ever seen, even when I hung out in coffee shops, had enough steam for ‘fog’. The rest of the description was even worse.

    I found myself wondering, as I looked at the OP, what about characters who mask and deflect everything? Lymond, for instance, to pick one I know you know.

  2. Nanette, that seems like the way to bet. But dialogue like this without first establishing the murder or heist or whatever seems horribly out of place.

    I’m partial to characters who are restrained, so yes, by all means let’s envision Lymond. He’s just killed someone at a party, say. Someone says, “So, how was the party?”. He barely glances up, says, “Gaudeamus igitur,” or something, and goes back to whatever he was doing. No elevated heart rate, nothing. He’s way too cool to react strongly just because he killed somebody.

  3. Nanette, I wandered over to the OP and read the larger excerpt there. My guess is sexual assault (given apparent teen + party) or something else verging on, or crossing into criminal.

    Rachel, yeah, that sounds about right. Unless he’s both in a mood and wants it known for purposes of his larger plots something like: “It improved tremendously after I killed Bailey.” Which, given him, whoever’s around will take as either a joke in bad taste or a flat statement of fact.

    I’ve seen POVs used to notice very slight possible reactions – twitch, knuckles going white, that sort of thing – and often with a ‘was that a reaction’? included in the POV’s narrative.

  4. Part of the problem is that these might seem very appropriate in the right context. It’s hard to analyze things on their own.

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