Micro skill: a writing technique used to create an element of a novel that, although small, contributes with other small elements to the bettering of the novel as a whole. When employed masterfully, micro skills can transform a novel from “The writing wasn’t great, but I really enjoyed it” into “That book totally changed my life.” See also: macro skill, e.g., plot, character, setting. Micro skills form like a Voltron to create macro skills.
Today’s featured micro skill: conveying a character’s emotions in a fresh, interesting, and clear manner.
If you want readers to connect with your characters, you have to give those characters real recognizable feelings. So how to do that without nonspecific statements like “He was sad,” or “She was mad”?
A good starting point is to focus on the physical. Emotions are rooted in our bodily reactions, so using physicality both grounds the description and makes it visceral to the reader. As in all areas of writing, avoid the clichés, like “Her pulse raced.” However, if you’re writing a rough draft and you don’t want to break your flow, clichés and nonspecific language can be excellent placeholders. Just make sure you go back on the next round and change “She turned red” into “Her skin pulsed red and hot, like an overripe tomato about to burst.”
Also important is the description’s relevance to the particular story and character you are writing. The language may be lush and poetically evocative, but if it’s about a mountain stream and your character has never been out of Brooklyn and has never imagined travelling to the Himalayas, then maybe you should change it to a stream in Prospect Park.
Here are a few good examples of emotion description:
Cam’s whole body felt heavy, as if there were mercury flowing through her veins. She felt like a polluted tuna.
-The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder (2012. Razorbill, New York. p. 170.)
The mention of mercury invokes thickness and poison. The addition of the tuna adds comedy and makes it specific to the voice of this character.
There’s a dark flutter in my chest, like a bird smashing itself against a window…
-Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff (2013. Razorbill, New York. p. 5)
So much better than “My heart pounded.” And it fits well with the story, because the character is about to see a news story about dying birds.
Light coursed through Karou and darkness chased it—burning through her, chilling her, shimmer and shadow, ice and fire, blood and starlight, rushing, roaring, filling her.
-Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor (2012. Little, Brown, New York. Kindle location 3366)
Emotions are rarely pure. Anger can be mixed with sadness, happiness with fear. Taylor does a beautiful job of conveying the extreme opposites that take Karou over when she sees the angel Akiva. The language is powerful and dramatic because the plot—an endless war between two races—is powerful and dramatic.
To practice this skill, imagine a character in an emotionally charged situation and try to describe what he or she is feeling, avoiding vague language. Make sure to be true to your character and setting.
Here are a few to start you out:
1) A high school senior who has just been asked to the prom by a boy/girl he/she doesn’t like.
2) A retail employee being scolded by his/her manager for something that isn’t his/her fault.
3) A long-distance runner in the middle of an important race.