On Writing Emotion: How Big Are Your Scissors?

11 Jun

photo by PDiaz courtesy of

Showing emotion can be one of the hardest things for new writers. Most spend hours learning body language and the physical reactions emotions stir.

Fist-clenching. Teeth grinding. Lip-curling. We know them all. We have the list.

The problem is that these standard expressions get old quickly. If your antagonist sneers more than once in a book, he looks like a cartoon villain. My agent calls this “grimacing” and she wants it out of my writing.

Fine. Agreed. But what can we put in its place? Dialogue can’t carry all the emotion. Sometimes the strongest feelings are the ones we can’t put into words.

There has to be a way to physically show emotion without falling back on these old clichés.

I have always struggled with this, but recently I remembered a scene from my childhood which illustrated exactly what I need to do as a writer.

When I was growing up, my mother had a violent weekly ritual. Every Sunday morning, she pulled out a pair of giant scissors and –in a fit of rage–murdered the Parade magazine that came with the newspaper.

She slashed. She sliced. She stabbed. The assault seemed to go on for hours. And it was the same for every magazine and every coupon book that entered our home. No cigarette ad ever left our house unshredded.

As a child, I don’t think I fully appreciated all the layers of emotion at play in this scene. I’m not sure I understood the immense grief she must have felt after losing so many loved ones to lung cancer. I only saw the anger and what I perceived as an unspoken threat: This is what I will do to you if you ever start smoking.

More than thirty years later, that scene is still crystal clear in my memory. None of my mother’s children smoke, a testament to the impact that dramatic display had on us.  Recently, I was surprised to discover that those scissors are the exact same size as the ones I have in my own home. Fear had enlarged them in my mind.

As a writer, this is what I want to do with emotions in my scenes. I want to paint a picture that sticks with the reader long after she’s closed the book. I want a tangle of feelings that can’t be covered by one easy label. I want the reader to magnify the scene with his own emotional experiences.

I realize not every scene needs to be this over-the-top. But now when I’m trying to instill more emotion into a key scene, I stop and search for the “telling detail.” I ask myself, “What physical object would be as emotionally significant to my character as the cigarette ads were for my mother?” I hold that object in my hand. What would I do with it if I were completely enraged, devastated, or thrilled? How big are my scissors?

I would love to hear your tips on how to add emotions to scenes without falling into the same old clichés. Please share them in the comments below.


Posted by on June 11, 2012 in writing, writing craft


29 responses to “On Writing Emotion: How Big Are Your Scissors?

  1. rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy

    June 11, 2012 at 6:58 AM

    What a fantastic post. And an image that makes the lesson unforgettable. One of the perennial problems writers have is conveying information in a striking enough way that the reader will always remember it. I’m off to tweet!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 8:09 AM

      Thank you, Roz. I appreciate the kind words and the tweet.

  2. Janis McCurry

    June 11, 2012 at 7:08 AM

    Hmm, I try to keep foremost what the POV character has to lose in the scene. If I can do that, I feel I can do justice to the character’s emotion whether I would feel the same personally or not. Walk in their shoes is the tip I’d give.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 8:10 AM

      Great advice, Janis. Thanks!

  3. Dan

    June 11, 2012 at 8:56 AM

    Reblogged this on ramblin dan.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 2:01 PM

      Thanks for the mention, Dan. I’m hopping over to check out your site now.

  4. ellaquinnauthor

    June 11, 2012 at 9:15 AM

    Great post. This is alwasy a problem for me because I write in a time (Regency) where desplays of emotion were very slight, a curl of a lip, a freezing tone, thinned lips. You get the picture. And I do grimace too much.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 2:13 PM

      So glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this. We’re getting lots of great suggestions on fresh ways to approach it. Thank you so much for the comment, Ella!

  5. Liz Fredericks

    June 11, 2012 at 9:20 AM

    Thanks for this Clarissa! The ‘object’ approach is a good one and I’m struggling with too many smiles, grimaces and grins in my wip. Also, from a research perspective, Paul Ekman (Emotions Revealed) has done some interesting work with how faces reveal emotions. Apparently, there are universal ‘twitches’ we have to reveal fear, affection, loathing etc etc. This was a very useful read for me.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 7:58 PM

      Liz, that Ekman research sounds like the basis for the TV show Lie To Me. Have you seen it? I learned a few things from it. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Tess

    June 11, 2012 at 10:23 AM

    Great post…I think all writers struggle with smiles, grimaces, and hand fisting (of course, I struggle with nodding too!) I always try to make the character not be able to go back after a scene…so they’ll never be the same…something must change in them during every scene (not that the change stays–usually it changes again)…whether it is happiness, love, grief…all reactions they have no control over.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 7:59 PM

      Another great tip! Thanks so much for commenting, Tess.

  7. stephanieberget

    June 11, 2012 at 10:47 AM

    Oh, Clarissa, you nailed it. I struggle with this, and your description was a light bulb moment for me today. I printed this to hang on my wall as a reminder. I think I’ll hang a pair of scissors beside it. Thank you.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 7:59 PM

      Glad to be of help, Steph! Thanks so much for the encouragement.

  8. Suzie Quint

    June 11, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    What a wonderful example. To do this with a character will show real depth and make them memorable..

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 8:00 PM

      Thank you for commenting, Suzie. I appreciate the kind words.

  9. Meredith Allen Conner

    June 11, 2012 at 1:39 PM

    Loved this post Clarissa. The scenes that always stick with me are the ones exactly like what you pictured here. So much emotion, history, turmoil all encompassed in a Sunday morning ritual.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 10:00 PM

      Thank you, Meredith!

  10. Jennifer Froelich

    June 11, 2012 at 2:04 PM

    Wonderful post. One of the things I love about your example is that it invites the reader to engage in the story personally and ask: Why would a character do that?

    Even if readers do not come to the same emotion you intended, they will likely invest their own history into the character and assign an emotion that works for them. It reminds me of what Edmund Wilson said. “No two people read the same book.”

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 10:03 PM

      What a fantastic quote. Yes, I love stories that make me ask questions. It’s great to look at your manuscript with an eye for the questions the reader will be asking. Thanks for commenting, Jennifer 🙂

  11. Anita Clenney

    June 11, 2012 at 3:16 PM

    Great post, Clarissa. And your example is brilliant. After a few freshly written examples of emotion it’s hard to write it fresh. I have to admit I love my grins and scowls and glares and grimaces and frowns….on an on. I love them! I use them, but I try not to use too many.Margie Lawson does a good job with this in her classes, but I still find myself stuck sometimes, falling back on the old standbys.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 10:05 PM

      Hi, Anita. Yes, Margie Lawson came to Boise and taught us all a thing or two about writing emotion 🙂 I’ve nowhere her level of expertise, but this one example did stick with me. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  12. morgan wyatt

    June 11, 2012 at 3:41 PM

    Who knew that would get her point across? My mother an ER nurse would tell us in a perfectly normal tone of graphic imagery of drug users brought into her ER. You guessed it no druggies in our family.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 10:07 PM

      What a great source for story images, Morgan! I’m going to have to find an ER nurse to interview. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  13. Lynn Mapp

    June 11, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    Writing emotion is sooo difficult. Thank you for sharing “the object” approach.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      June 11, 2012 at 10:07 PM

      Hi Lynn, Thanks for commenting 🙂

  14. Peggy Staggs

    June 12, 2012 at 10:07 AM

    What a great image off your mom. I can see it used in a WIP as a hint to back story. I’m a lazy writer so I’ve got several books on body language My favorites are by Tonya Reiman. They have everything sectioned out by body part. Very helpful

  15. marsharwest

    June 12, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    Great post, Clarissa. I’m working through one of Margie’s packet’s now. Just reading the examples she shares is eye-opening, very like your scissors story. Thanks for sharing. And Peggy, I love the cheat sheet idea. I have several of those I use for verbs. I tend to “head in” a direction more than stumble, run, dash, etc. LOL

  16. maryvine

    June 16, 2012 at 9:54 PM

    What a great post, Clarissa. I’m glad I searched back to see if I’d missed any posts. I tend to write “Furrowed brow” too often. Your mother’s emotional display with the scissors is a good illiustration for me – to learn how to write better. Thanks!


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