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.