One of the most challenging aspects of learning the writing craft, to me anyway, has been how to describe and depict the emotions a character feels. It's simple to just tell the reader: Elliot felt mad. Not good writing. How to make the reader feel the mad, the anger, the heat of it. Some of my best writing teachers have suggested using physical sensations to describe the emotion, since most of us feel emotions in our bodies. I find that advice useful, but it takes time to develop. When I'm writing an emotion, I stop and try to feel it in my own body and then try to get that feeling down on the page.
Recently, I came across this telling graphic depiction of the areas in the body where emotions are felt:
Wow. I think every writer should print this out and post it above your computer. Look at anger, for example. It's all in the upper body, especially in the jaw and hands. And in the heart area. That's why phrases like "harden the heart" are part of our lexicon. But of course, as writers, we don't want to rely on cliched expressions to do the work we should be doing.
I find this graphic so interesting. Disgust is mostly in the throat. Depression is a deep dark whole in the center of your body. Shame seems mostly expressed in the eyes. I wish there were many more of these images to fit more emotions.
However, we all have bodies and emotions, so start mapping out for yourself. Observe those around you. This is one of my favorite games: watch people interacting and try to predict what their emotional states are even without hearing what they're saying. You can do this with the TV muted as well, although I prefer watching real people in their real lives. Notice how other writers do this well. You may not want to steal their fabulous phrasing, but you can learn from their unique take on a time-worn description.
I am inclined to use every moment as writerly research, so use any situation you are in to track emotional responses. How are people at a funeral expressing their grief in their bodies? How about during a family quarrel? What about driving on a dangerous stretch of road in the winter--white knuckles, right? But that's cliche, so dig deeper.
I would really love to have some interaction in the comments section here. Submit your ideas for describing emotions through bodily sensations. We can all help and learn from each other.
by Neysa CM Jensen