Showing Emotions in Writing – Through Actions

Showing Emotions in Writing


Emotions are shown through action

As part of showing emotions, you can use the actions associated with the emotion you are trying to evoke. Clenched fists, pacing around, laughing, crying, hugging, turning away and so many other actions help people figure out how you are feeling without being told. Research them or make a list of all the ones you can think of or that others may have told you about. Your characters can do these actions and your reader will know how they are feeling.

Pacing (walking) around

The walking pace, length of stride, and how much the arms are used are the useful parts that help you figure out emotions. If you see someone running they may be trying to get away from something they fear, running towards a person who may need help or aiming for the ‘runner’s high’ they get from vigorous exercise. Striding can be at a rapid clip with arm action closer in when a person is worried they are late, ensuring they get to where they are heading within a certain time frame or they are hiking out into the wild.

The slower walk of people who are happy, enjoying who they are with, noticing the world around them with joy or walking beside their child or elderly family member is distinctive. A mother carrying her infant walks carefully, alert to anything that may cause her to trip and maybe injury her baby and when they stop walking, they often stand and rock slightly to soothe the child.

With anger most people stomp or walk heavier than usual, their actions are clipped and their hands may be clenched into fists, doors are closed heavily and voices are raised often in obscenities. Happy children may skip along their way. Relaxed, centred people walk at a steady clip with a smooth posture as a line of Buddhist monks will show you. You can put how the character is moving or walking, into the story to help show their emotions.

Repetition of actions

A person can keep on repeating actions as a way to soothe their emotions if they are distressed, OCD, maybe autistic or are trying to figure something out. Many creative people use practising their actions to help them become almost automatic. A pianist or other instrument player may ‘airplay’ when they are thinking deeply or getting ready to play in front of others. It helps them get into the right state of mind.

Martial arts and other sports work in a similar way. A boxer may practice weaving, dodging an imaginary fist or landing jabs. Maybe your character can do something similar if they are trying to get another character to lash out at them. Any action that may save your life as a service person is practised till it becomes second nature so you can show this happening to your characters.

Nervous or anxious people may pluck at their clothing and re-arrange it multiple times; maybe smooth it down or crunch it up. Some people scratch their skin or pop their pimples. Others twirl their hair around their fingers and some even chew on the end of their hair. Rubbing earlobes, the side of your nose or your wrist, tapping your fingers on the closest surface can all be used to help judge how you are feeling or what you may be thinking about.

There are people who recheck what they have just done to ensure they have completed the action. Some may have a set number of times they feel they have to do the repetitive action before they are no longer anxious. This can be something quite minor if it is an older person who doesn’t fully trust their memory or it can be so extreme that the person cannot function very well in society and has major social problems.

Use these repetitive actions or any others you can remember or make up to make your character an individual with their share of flaws as well as the parts that make them better than real life. But do not make them insanely better as they do need to be believable in some way.

Realistic actions

Even if your character is a mix of different creatures the actions they make should have an emotional content to them e.g. their tentacles come out only when they are angry or when they are aroused, you pick. By this I mean, you have to know what your character has as parts of their body and how that body reacts to different emotions. You may have to do a ‘tell’ the first time it happens but not afterwards.

If your character is a wereanimal they should show some of their animal’s emotional characteristics when in animal form and have a bit of holdover when in human form. An Alpha is an Alpha in human or wolf form and is subconsciously recognised as that even by humans.

If your character is a human then know and understand what actions or micro-expressions show others how they are feeling. Most people recognise a false smile when someone thinks that is the action they should show when greeting people they don’t know or may not like and as a response to a joke that they don’t think is funny. A true smile of joy or happiness attracts other people near it and they often smile in response.

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You know that the person who is saying, ‘nothing is wrong’ but they are sitting there with their arms and legs crossed, maybe one leg bouncing or a finger tapping on the opposite arm with facial expressions that are tight is probably angry at you or someone near you. Most people skirt around them till they relax.

Learn about body language and actions to use in your writing so you don’t confuse the reader because the words you are using don’t match the actions you are giving to your characters. The actions should be relevant to the problems, or happiness, you are giving the characters and the scenes or settings they are set in should be right for the actions occurring. Bedroom scenes should not be carried out in full view of everyone especially if they are R-rated unless it is a BDSM club then go for it. Business is not often done in bed either; mostly it occurs in an office, conference, meeting or restaurant.

Instant reactions or thoughts

The instant reaction is the true reaction. You can use it to good effect. Your characters may physically respond to what someone has said or done to them. There are some actions that can be instinctive and your brain does not think before responding e.g. an unexpected bite will lead to a slap from the person bitten to the one who did the biting; there is no way to stop that response as it is completed so fast. All winners seem to throw their arms upwards to show they were the first, the winner, and if they don’t there is a slight letdown for the watchers. Another winning reaction almost as well-known is to go to the ground and kiss it as a thank you – maybe for winning, maybe for gratitude, it is a goal now completed.

As a writer we can show the reader the characters thoughts to an action e.g. ‘She didn’t just pop me on the …, did she?’ They may think over the actions later as well and decide if their reaction was appropriate or not and worry about it. Thoughts wrote down add to the depth of your characters and stories.

Dialogue is the best way to let emotions run free. There are thousands of words about the various emotions you can use. Try not to use the ‘same old ones’. Those stock phrases annoy your reader and date quickly. Grow your vocabulary and help your reader learn too. Hey still need to be able to figure out what a new word may mean by the surrounding words you have used.

Slower heightens anticipation

There is a place for action, on action, on action, it is called the Crisis Point. The rest of the time a good build-up creates the tension and anticipation your reader will delight in. Women like the build-up as they grow to know the characters and enjoy them more. Many men just enjoy the action as the emotional part of the story may be harder for them to read and absorb – not always though so don’t shout at me.

Going slower allows more details that show why there are problems to be solved. Dislike can turn to love over time if the two learn more about each other at the same time we do. They can be part of a backstory given or just layer on layer of added intensity in the emotions shown and expressed. Why are we reading two stories interwoven in alternating chapters; maybe the characters are relatives separated in time, maybe the two main characters are better explored by using their POV in a different chapter.

A love scene is not a ‘Wham, bam, thank you ma’am’ it is a slow exploration of each other to find out what the other person likes to have happened and following through. Of course when they know each other better anything you imagine can happen. A fight, on the other hand, is often an instant response unless someone is trying to aggravate another person until they throw the first punch making that person the one in the wrong if the law is called out.

Use the slower way when you want to really ramp up emotions and involve your readers in what happens and be rooting for their favourite people to come out on top. Build each thought and action towards this end with enough detail to make it very vivid and involving.

Timeframe or any constraints set

Remember when you have set your story. Few women defended themselves, supposedly, through history. You may have to make them warrior maidens who then may not be thought of as suitable to become wives because you never knew what they got up to when away at war; the child they bear may not be yours, etc. The emotional responses to seen or unseen actions may differ depending on the setting’s place in history.

You might put your own constraints as to who is the dominant person, tribe, country, world, etc. If you are world building it is your choice of what will anger or make your characters happy. Be consistent with your story which means you have to be able to refer to what you decided if you can’t remember what it was. A good file system or notebook will help you remember what you decided for your world and its inhabitants.

 In your world, women may be Amazon-like or the men may follow a Pack structure with the dominant Alpha setting the rules. So are women or men the more easily discarded and whose emotions are denigrated as not that important? Do they get frustrated as they are not listened to? Is it easy to feel or find love? How important is parenthood and who does the caring so the younger members of society grow up to interact socially well?

Emotions give the subtext to dialogue

Dialogue can be just another way to tell your story unless it is interlaced with the emotions that might have caused the dialogue to start, what may be felt during the dialogue and how the people feel afterwards. Dialogue is good as many things can be quickly and concisely expressed within the words said but it is just so much ‘blah, blah, blah’ if emotions aren’t a very real part in the conversation. Emotions are the Internal Conflict in your story. It is the reason why lovers fight against getting together, why enemies are fighting the war, why the lack of them may lead a character to become a serial killer, why a person starts off on a journey to elsewhere and why everything might come right in the end. Hope, the last thing to escape from Pandora’s Box, is eternal as you can endure all things if you think there is a chance that change for the better will happen.

So, what will you note down in your notebook?

Will you have a book close by the writing space that tells you how the different emotions, in both positive and negative forms, can be written about so they are recognised by your readers without you having to beat them over the head with it? The Emotional Thesaurus is very useful to any writer wanting to add more emotions to their writing and the book is available in many places. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, IndieBound, Smashwords and Book Depository + a PDF for $5.99; check it out. is the website for the writers who created it. Visit them after you have borrowed it from the library and found out how good it was.

  • Are your characters more rounded and believable when you add in more emotion?
  • Do you find it hard writing about emotions? Why?
  • Are you worried about adding emotions in and people dismissing your writing as too emotional?
  • Is it hard for you to write about emotions?


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