Show What Your Character Is Feeling and Thinking (and Do It Like a Writer, Not a Director)

Show What Your Character Is Feeling and Thinking (and Do It Like a Writer, Not a Director)

This week’s video offers some thoughts on less-than-effective techniques you might using to show what your character is feeling and thinking and how to avoid falling into the pitfalls of our movie-saturated culture.

Video Transcript:

True story. My critique partners and editors are always all over me for overusing the words “breathe” and “look.” Like any normal, realistic human being, my characters are constantly breathing and looking. Because aren’t these expressions the subtle indications by which you show what your character is feeling and thinking?

The problem, as I well know, is that these things don’t need to be indicated in every single dialogue beat. Not only do they get repetitious fast but they’re not even all that great a way to accomplish what it is I’m trying to accomplish.

We live in a tremendously visual society. Movies are the predominant form of storytelling, and we’re all influenced by them. When I’m writing along, I’m seeing my characters acting out the story in my head as if it were a movie playing out on a screen. And believe me, they are fantastic actors! They all deserve Oscars, in my opinion. They can convey untold depth and subtext with the single raise of an eyebrow, an influx of breath, a steely look in their eyes. It’s poetry.

That’s awesome for the movies. The problem is we’re not writing for the movies.

We’re writing novels, and that sigh that says so much in a movie isn’t nearly as effective when it’s a word on the page. That ineffable expression you see in your character’s eyes that moves you so much is just that: ineffable, indescribable.

That’s sad. I find that sad anyway, because I love the visual power that an expression has for conveying subtext. But it’s time we just flat-out realize that “looked” and “breathed” are just not a particularly effective technique for novelists. When I go through my manuscripts and delete most of the references to my characters taking a breath or looking someone in the eye, my prose very rarely loses anything (except repetition).

Do this and it will force you to find new—and better—and more pertinent—ways to describe what your character is feeling and thinking. Sometimes it just makes your dialogue stand on its own, sometimes the character’s expression is already plain from the context, and sometimes you have to dig deeper to find a more original way to evoke your character’s expressions.

Tell me your opinion: What do you think is the best way to show what your character is feeling and thinking in a novel?

Show What Your Character Is Feeling and Thinking (and Do It Like a Writer, Not a Show What Your Character Is Feeling and Thinking (and Do It Like a Writer, Not a Director))

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I write from inside my protagonist. His/her feelings are what I am feeling as I write. Does this make sense? I have compared it to method acting. Not imagining what the character is feeling and thinking so much as what I myself would be feeling and thinking in that situation, and then projecting into the character and onto the page. It’s a flash-dance between me and the character. Remember when we were kids and we could let our imaginations fly into make-believe? I remember as a small child making believe I was a horse, and I would get down on all fours and trot (yes, trot) around the patterned edge of the living room carpet. I was a horse, I was a horse, I was a horse!
    We need to get under the skin of the character.
    I have made my characters take a breath or look someone in the eye quite often, mainly for pacing. I have had two generals (thinking about getting rid of Hitler) look each other in the eye to read each other’s reaction, trying to determine if they can speak frankly, or must guard their words. No, I think there are places where we must pause, and where these wordless reactions must be expressed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! I used to do that as a kid too. All my jeans had holey knees.

      There’s a time and a place for everything. Totally agree that getting rid of *every* instance of “breathe” or “look” (or any other sort of expression) is overkill. But we don’t need to be charting every flick of our characters’ gaze or fluctuation in breathing.

      • I’m a screenwriter (and thinking of novelizing my current screenplay) – Look and breathe (and toss in words like “sigh”) are words I try to root out as well. Those words reminds me of when people say “To be honest,….” My first reaction is usually “wait, you haven’t been honest before this?” lol.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          “Breathe” and its variations are words that inevitably crop up in my first draft. I always weed them out assiduously, since 99% of their occurrences add nothing to the prose.

  2. Another great post, K.M.

    I struggle with the same issue constantly, but I don’t worry about it in first drafts. However, searching ‘globally’ for nods, looks, breaths, etc. during the revision process helps me to check for weak dialogue and boring body language. I want my dialogue to shine, plus every movement a character makes should, in the ideal world, be meaningful: deepen the characterization, be visual, be interesting, be fresh.

    Sometimes I’ll have another character put the wrong(or right!) interpretation on the other character’s dialogue or body language. Sometimes I’ll play ping pong with the character’s body language and an interesting setting detail. Sometimes I’ll scream because I can’t find the ‘perfect’ solution, and that’s when leaving it out just might work.

    And ten years from now, I might even be able to post something about the process.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s amazing to me how wonderfully it often works to just “leave it out.” Sometimes we rob more from our prose than we add when we try to stuff it full of details and expressions such as these.

  3. I find I tend to focus too much on what’s going on INSIDE my character…relying way too much on heart quickening, constricting throat, heavy feeling in their chest, knots in their stomach, etc. That gets repetitious too! And can be cliche. Sometimes I DO need to mention their outward actions. I think there should be a mix of both, and done deftly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, I can definitely do that too! The great benefit of the novel is that it does allow us inside of our characters. But we definitely want to always be balancing that with the visual aspect as well.

  4. Oh no… Half of my book needs to be changed after reading this. I try so hard to SHOW and not TELL, so I replace the boring “he said, she said” with “he looked her in the eyes, she looked at the floor”.
    Kate, I’m afraid that in case I change the looking part, I’ll go back to telling and not showing. What is your advice on that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No need to be afraid of “said.” It’s an invisible word that often works much better than the more elaborate alternatives. “Said” lets your dialogue stand on its own, which is almost always a good thing.

      • Janey Egerton says:

        Hi Katie, now that you mention that, there’s something I’ve been about to ask for some time. In my WIP, the two main characters talk a lot about their feelings, as they have to defeat several inner demons in order to eventually realise that they love each other. Since the story is told from the POV of the Character 1 (and in the present tense, at that), the reader can access what’s going on inside Character 2’s feelings mostly through dialogue. None of my beta readers have complained so far, but I feel often that my dialogue is too long and feel compelled to insert a lot of action in between in order to avoid a talking-heads effect. However, there’s not always enough meaningful action you can insert, so I feel my character do an unusual amount of sipping, chewing, swallowing, looking, breathing, chuckling, etc. Could you please give any pointers as to how long a single conversation may become before it turns boring? Also, how much additional action do you need to go along with dialogue. You say it’s good when dialogue stands on its own, but a novel is not a play. So how much standing on its own is acceptable for novels?
        Thank you in advance!
        Janey

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          There are no easy answers for this. It totally depends on what’s right for the story. If your gut instinct is twinging, that’s probably a good sign your dialogue is top-heavy. My first recommendation would simply be to try paring the dialogue down to the bare minimum and see what happens. Remember, subtext is golden – and we only gain subtext when we’re not spelling everything out.

          As for avoiding talking-head syndrome with meaningful action beats, that can get a little trickier. Try identifying a physical goal the characters can be pursuing during their conversation which will provide thematic reinforcement or contrast to whatever they’re talking about.

  5. Love that idea, Katie! Simple. I’m bad about being a director because I write like I’m describing a movie scene, so I try to think about all five senses when writing the character in a scene. It forces me to get into their heads and describe what they’re experiencing and not just what I’m seeing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! Focusing on the senses is a great way to ground ourselves in the scene. Movies are entirely visual and aural, so it’s great to take advantage of those uniquely novelistic senses such as smell, taste, and touch.

  6. If you are in proper viewpoint inside your character’s head, words like”breathe” and “look” break that viewpoint.

    How often do you notice your breathing unless you are having trouble breathing or you’re running? Your character shouldn’t either. The same thing with “look.”

    You shouldn’t write “He looked at the blooming tree losing its blossoms.” You should write “The pear tree’s blossoms floated like snow around him.”

    For more hints, click on my name to go to my blog then click on the “viewpoint” tab.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although I absolutely agree with you on the “showing” constructions being more desirable than the the “telling” constructions (e.g., he saw, he felt, he smelled), I don’t necessarily consider this to be out of POV. We may not consciously iterate our awareness of our breathing (or whatever), but we *are* aware of it, just as we’re aware of the pear blossoms even if we’re not consciously iterating their appearance either. As authors, we have to strike a balance between allowing readers to feel themselves in the body of the character, insofar as it’s pertinent and valuable to the story, and cutting the references that are simply unnecessary and intrusive.

  7. One thing I learned from my many years in the theatre is that a prop is never just a prop: it’s a metaphor for a person you’re in relationship with, or for the relationship itself. So I try to let my fictional characters reveal their inner state by interacting with an object: caressing, testing, crushing, straightening, throwing across the room. . . .

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s smart. I think most of us probably do that instinctively on some level, but it’s a good reminder to try to utilize it consciously as well.

  8. I try to show what my character is thinking, to get to the deeper emotions and feelings. But even though I love that insight into a character, in some stories I know the introspective dialogue gets to be drawn out and a little boring. So I try to balance it too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always smart to keep in mind what *we* enjoy (or don’t enjoy) as readers. If you find yourself writing something you know would bore you as a reader, that’s always a good warning sign to heed.

  9. I’m still trying to find the best way to show – my WIP is rife with “looks” and “breaths”. While I can see the movie in my head (and when I’m in the right flow, I really do SEE scenes unfold visually) I struggle to remember that readers won’t. I have no solutions as yet, but am eager to know how other people address this issue.

  10. examples? You say the more overused terms writers pick up from visuals (movies/tv) can be omitted or replaced with “new—and better—and more pertinent—ways to describe what your character is feeling and thinking. Sometimes it just makes your dialogue stand on its own, sometimes the character’s expression is already plain from the context, and sometimes you have to dig deeper to find a more original way to evoke your character’s expressions.

    examples?

  11. Whilst I totally agree with the idea of dialog speaking for itself, and being careful about over-blocking scenes and repetitious description, I don’t see the harm at all in using looks, nods or breaths or an obvious gesture to show an emotive response, because (provided they are an accurate response to a given scenario) these are things are immediately recognisable and relatable. We live in a visual society because sight is our primary sense, and as such we are hard wired to understand these nuances of communication. The biggest percentage of communication is facial expression. The way in which something is said, is secondary, and finally is what was actually said. So these kinds of beats are essential, especially in third person restricted and omniscient, where characters are very often observed externally
    For me, there are three key points.

    1. Avoid anything superfluous:
    “No,” he said shaking his head. “Absolutely not.”

    Just as a reader is hard wired to understand the subtle nuances of non-verbal communication, so they are able to READ these into a response without the need for it to explicitly be there.

    2. Always make these emotive beats MEANINGFUL. “He looked away,” might tell you about the discomfort or conflict a character feels at what they’ve just been told, but “He examined the small rock in his hand, turning it over and over, thumbing it’s sharp edge.” Tells you far more.

    3. Never EVER describe an emotion in a POV character. Describe what they are thinking or experiencing, or witnessing in a way that will evoke the same response from the reader. Don’t say “it disgusted him” just simply write something in a way that makes the reader think ‘oh that’s disgusting’. I read a very popular YA book recently that was littered with this stuff:

    “He was so angry, But upon hearing the news his anger turned to mild frustration, and then finally to sadness.”

    Even for YA, this is junk 101. Meaningless, un-engaging, lazy writing of the highest order!

    Also, finally I don’t see the movie story telling form as necessarily detrimental to writing, in fact, in the absence of such high drama and conflict in our own lives, I think you can learn a huge amount from a movie scene with regard to behaviour, body language, expression and response. It is the ultimate “show” medium, there’s very little luxury of tell in a screenplay, because you can spot it a mile away in stilted dialog, and obvious exposition etc. Try writing a scene from your book as a scene from a screenplay. It’s a really great exercise in honing your exposition, working out how you could relate something when you are denied the writer’s voice!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent points! Any expression a character may use is valuable – in moderation. It’s also absolutely true that we can learn from watching actors work and trying to recreate their effects on the page. However, we have to realize that certain of those effects will be better optimized for written fiction than others. Our goal needs to be figuring out what techniques will be most useful in helping the reader bring the scene to life in their own heads.

  12. Such a timely post. I’m on draft one of my new romantic suspense, so there’s time to do the global search-and-repair at the end. I’ve found myself using a lot of “looked” in this one, because there are often three people in the conversations. Definitely don’t want to be writing “Character A said to Character B” and “looked/glanced” is an easy solution. Thanks for prompting us to move beyond easy. I like the tip in the comments about allowing the point of view character to interpret/misinterpret the other person’s expression.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s often helpful to stick in a prop – or give the characters an action they can be performing – so you have more to work with in your action beats than just the shifting of the characters’ posture.

  13. Lorna G. Poston says:

    Guilty of letting my scenes play like a movie in my head, then putting what I see on the page. Good post, good things to keep in mind as I write.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The important thing is just to get the visuals out while we’re writing–then go back with a reader’s eye and edit for maximum effect.

  14. I fall more into the ‘he or she nodded’, and I have to look back and say, oh boy I did it again. When I was writing my first novel about an Irish family, I had the good luck to meet NYC agent in an elevator and his response to my ‘practiced elevator pitch’ was, “Well I hope they are doing more than drinking tea.” I went back to the manuscript and counting 12 scenes where they were drinking tea! In the final version I cut that back to three:) Sometimes you just don’t even see what’s in front of you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! That’s hilarious. Probably not the response you were expecting though! 😉

  15. Katie–
    The word that one of my editors recently slapped me upside the head about is “now.” I think I must overuse it for the reasons you’re talking about–in a effort to generate a sense of immediate action. When it was brought to my attention how often I was using “now,” it was embarrassing. And I was very grateful for that attentive other set of eyeballs that no writer can do without.
    As the best way to show what characters are feeling, that requires the writer to be experiencing the world as the character is experiencing it. Ultimately, this ability is mostly dependent on self-knowledge on the part of the writer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Now” is one of those tic words (like “just”) that like to creep into our writing during the mad rush of the first draft – and then turn invisible to our non-objective eyes. Thank heavens for beta readers and editors!

  16. Yes, I am guilty of ‘tic’ words. ‘just’, ‘now’ ‘then’, and several others.
    I delete or adjust them as I edit; and then I make a ‘find’ pass for each.
    I also (if you can believe it) check every ‘and’, which I tend to overuse. I remember Hemingway often had string sentences with multiple ‘ands’, and I used to like the effect. Now it just seems a bit of overkill.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Paring down complex sentences is something I’ve had to work at since the beginning. My conjunctions and gerunds like to run away with me if I’m not careful.

      • Even worse than too many gerunds are those unbelievable dangling participles that are so tricky to recognise.
        When writing interior monologue, however, I like run-on sentences, with or without conjunctions. They have to be controlled and not overused, but those run-ons can tell us more about the character’s state of mind than any exterior description.

  17. I have a cheat sheet with all those sneaky words that come out of my keyboard when I’m not looking. Just, look, now, up, down, over, and all those other stage directions. After the first draft is complete, I spend a couple of weeks with that list, shaking my head quite often as I work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Smart! Using a program like Scrivener or Smart Edit or Wordle.com to isolate frequently used words and phrases is a good move as well.

  18. Jinx! I am just writing an article about this for Self-Publishing Review! I will share here and share your article in mine. This is such a bugbear for me as a reviewer and editor. We are all guilty of it, however long we have been writing.

  19. Don’t forget ticks! Everyone has visual ticks, things they do when they’re thinking, or nervous, or embarassed. Look at friends and family, look at the better actors out there – some people rub their chin, others pare their nails, others bite their lips or rub the back of their necks. Some steeple their fingers, raise their eyebrow(s), purse their lips, rub thumb and forefinger together, run their fingers through their hair or suck on their teeth. This not only helps pepper your dialogues with emotional cues, it brings your characters to life – while some might share ticks, some will have their own unique ones. A lot of people have a whole vocabulary of ticks depending on whether they’re thoughtful, impatient, confused, tired or angry.
    Of course, like everything else, there is the danger of overdoing it… I think I need to go edit my dialogue now.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, I agree! As long as we’re not overdoing (which can be frighteningly easy to do), then personal tics and idiosyncrasies are a great way to bring depth to dialogue. The key, of course, is making sure the action isn’t just an action but one that illustrates the character in some way.

  20. I like to show outside and inside on how she’s feeling. It’s taken me a loooooong time to get to this point, I had to fight not saying she was feeling or any other short cuts for a long time.

    This is what I’ve got now (from chapter one):

    A purplish transparent shadow wafted from the books center. The shadow came at her like a whirling two-dimensional tornado. Engulfing her in seconds. She gasped for breath, stumbled, and fell.

    She splashed into the water, landing smack on her bottom. She flailed at the shadow, but her hands passed straight through it.

    She turned her head, but it followed her, curling around her face. She wanted to scream, to run, to be anywhere but here. The shadow burned as it moved within her, she clawed at her throat with both hands. An awful burning sensation spread throughout her.

    She dropped to the ground, twisting about in convulsions. Once they subsided, she stood up. Above her the thunder of the city’s the guards shook the streets.

    Cripes, what if it it’s all of them?

    Sweat trickled down her neck, she rubbed it.

    Now what to do? Stay here with it or go up there and … and …

    She leaned against a stone wall, several horrifying scenarios caused her to twist the edge of her jerkin tighter, until it squeaked.

    I do think I need to use less “she’s” but that’s for another revision. Ugg-a.

  21. First of all, thanks for pointing me to this article from your comment on the recent post on flat plots.

    I too am guilty of using “look” and “breath”. I’ve learned to substitute other words: watched, fixed his gaze, inhaled sharply, let go of a breath she didn’t know she was holding, etc. But you’re right, it’s the same issue. At the end of the day, readers are seeing the same two action over and over and over again. In a movie or TV show, they don’t because they take it for given (the way we take “he said”, “she said” for given) when they see people looking at each there, or the way they are breathing.

    Angela Ackerman in her Emotion Thesaurus has some great tips and numerous examples of other ways to show emotion. But ultimately you’re right and I relate, the voiday created by cutting those repeated looks and breaths is an opportunity to find something else. Even, more often than not, trusting the dialog itself already conveys the emotions, and if not, there’s an opportunity to hone it to make it do so. Less is more, and the reader should be able to extract subtext from words tell way a viewer extras it was visual cues in film.

  22. After imagining the scene movie-style, I like to think about the techniques a director would be using to convey what’s important, and about what exactly those important things are. Then I translate that into conveying it through writing. For example, is it important that the character’s ringtone is Telephone by Lady Gaga? No, but it’s important that it’s a pop song being played from cell-phone speakers, because it contrasts with the setting (dark spooky forest) in a way that helps set the tone.

Trackbacks

  1. […] We live in a tremendously visual society. Movies are the predominant form of storytelling, and we’re all influenced by them. When I’m writing along, I’m seeing my characters …read more […]

  2. […] Patchen gives some good tips about showing characters’ emotions, while KM Weiland suggests a quick way to help show and not tell what your characters are feeling, and Amanda Patterson relates 37 ways to write about anger. James Scott Bell discusses how to show […]

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