Breadcrumb trails to the heart

Silk’s Post # 68 — In my December 30th post, “The top 10 most overlooked emotions,” I listed what I thought were some interesting emotional shadings, like Schadenfreude, that could add complexity to a character. Then I closed with this:

“And yes, I’ve completely skipped the really hard challenge regarding characters and emotions here: how to convey their feelings through actions, rather than spending endless, brutally boring, pages inside their heads. Maybe that’ll be my next list?”

How does a writer plant clues for the reader about the emotional state of a character, without falling back on exposition? Let’s face it: “She felt dreadful after getting the heartbreaking news,” is about as emotionally engaging as reading the ingredients on a box of cereal.

I believe readers can only feel something if they’re active participants in the world of the story and the lives of its characters. They crave “aha!” moments. So how can we leave an enticing trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow into the depths of a character’s heart?

characters kressI started researching for a list of “Top 10 ways to convey characters’ emotions” in an effort to unlock the secrets of emotionally moving storytelling. A quixotic quest, you might think. An attempt to quantify magic, to capture light in a jar.

There is plenty of “how-to” advice out there, and some of it is certainly worth mining, such as Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. You’ll find 200 plus pages on craft and psychology: character types, points of view, basic techniques like dialogue and thoughts, and some more artful approaches like metaphor and sensory details used to convey feelings.

Not what I was hoping for, exactly. I wanted both a wider-angle picture, and a more intimate one, of emotional expression. I trashed the glib “Top 10” format I started with and went beachcombing through books, articles and memory, looking for gems. I chose only three treasures. These seem, to me, like basic storytelling wisdom inspired by real life, rather than craft techniques. But you be the judge.

1. Actions Speak Louder …

This isn’t exactly a surprise, rather it’s an old chestnut of the writer’s trade. But it’s easy to brush off as an obvious truth, and not so easy to actually execute.

Sometimes if you want to find a truth, it’s useful to seek out clichés. They usually got to be clichés for a reason. A little bit of googling a half-remembered phrase landed me back in the book of Matthew, same place I dredged up The Beatitudes in my December 23rd post. Matthew boils character down to its essence in a few quick strokes:

“Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.”

Morality lesson aside, it’s a pretty basic truth in fiction (as in life) that what characters do tells the story of who they are. If a character behaves selfishly, readers are entitled to believe she’s selfish. Even if the author tells us that she’s really a sweetheart, she was just having a bad hair day.

The fundamental character of a character is the Rosetta Stone by which readers interpret that character’s emotions in a given circumstance. In previous 5writers posts, we’ve discussed how (for some of us at least) it seems easier to clearly define a secondary character than a complex protagonist, leaving the reader confused about exactly what kind of fruit is growing on the main character’s “tree”.

Past actions also set up expectations for future actions. An interesting twist is when a character acts out of character. Did we previously misinterpret who she really is inside? Or has she fundamentally changed? Or is she faking it for some reason? Or is the author just confused about human nature?

2. Are You Looking at Me?

taxi-driver-mirrorOne of the most memorable scenes in the Martin Scorsese classic, Taxi Driver, had to be Robert DeNiro talking to himself in the mirror. Alone with his craziness, he brilliantly invented a second “self” to have a conversation with and react to. This tense, emotional piece of theatre opened the door into Travis Bickle’s mind and let the audience glimpse his pain, loneliness, confusion and frightening instability.

Seeing a character through another character’s eyes is a different trail of breadcrumbs to their emotional state.

The perennial advice to “put another person in the scene” is given for good reason. A pas de deux shows readers a rich array of emotional detail … not only in the characters’ actions and words, but also their reactions to each other. The increase in emotional content can be exponential.

3. Speaking in Body Language

The tales our bodies tell about how we feel, often without our express permission, are pure gold to a writer. Micro-expressions, tics and sweats, darting eyes and throbbing veins all give us away. These “tells” come from the limbic brain, where emotion rules. They are raw, unfiltered by the cortex.

How much more powerful than “telling” is showing the reader a character’s interior feelings through the way he sits stiff with tension, or squirms with impatience, or slumps with grief. You can even delete most of the unneeded explanatory words. If a person is waiting for something to happen and is squirming in a chair, we know he’s impatient.

After all, most of the word “emotion” is made up of “motion”.

emotion thesaurusThanks to a book recommendation from my wonderful long-time friend Della, another survivor of the marketing communications profession who is now writing for herself, I found the biggest gem of my quest for a breadcrumb trail to the heart. The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is a crash course in body language. It takes a long list of feelings, from Adoration to Worry, and provides physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses and other cues for each emotion. It’s a great resource, unique among the books for writers that I’ve seen.

Here’s an example of an emotion I had on my top 10 list: Embarrassment, which the book defines as “a lack of composure due to self-conscious discomfort.” A random sampling of physical signals from their long list:

  • A flush that creeps across the cheeks
  • The body freezing in place
  • Grimacing or swallowing
  • A bent spine
  • The chest caving
  • Covering oneself (crossing the arms, closing a jacket)
  • Flinching away from touches
  • A weakened voice
  • Knees pulling together
  • Looking down, unable to meet someone’e eyes
  • Shoving hands in pockets
  • A walk that accelerates into a sprint
  • Glancing about for help, an exit, or escape
  • (And my favourite) … Hiding behind a book

May your writing be amply laced with breadcrumb trails that go straight to the heart of your characters’ emotions!

6 thoughts on “Breadcrumb trails to the heart

  1. This is something I’m focusing on in my rebuild—using body language cues to show my characters’ emotions and reactions. Fingers crossed that I’m giving them the right feelings for their personalities!

    • I’m sure you will nail it JM — just use your instincts, which, from what I can see in your blog, are extremely well-tuned! I have to laugh at myself when I’m writing in body language and realize that I’m acting it out at the same time … I’ll suddenly be aware that my shoulders are hunched, or I’m scowling, or there’s a tear in my eye.

  2. Great post again, Silk! I especially love the ‘Embarrassment’ list. Most useful, as all good writing should have scenes where our protagonist has to eat crow, making readers squirm in their seats. I will save this on my Mariner software file. Thanks for this very practical information on an often overlooked topic.

  3. “I have to laugh at myself when I’m writing in body language and realize that I’m acting it out at the same time … ”
    I thought iI was the only one. My wife once walked in on me when I was trying to describe a long repressed fear suddenly exploding into terror. She rushed to the screen to see what was frightening me. I’ll pick up The Emotion Thesaurus so she won’t have so many funny stories at my expense. 😔

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