During tense, emotional moments, real people tend to experience a sequence of emotional reactions that goes like this:
First, they have a visceral reaction, a gut level response to something. Their body reacts. They can’t control this reaction. Their throat may close. Their eye may develop a tic. They gut may wrench. They jaw may clench. They may begin to sweat. They may break out in a smile. The hairs on the back of their neck stand up. Their knees go soft. The reaction, of course, is tied to the emotion they are feeling—directly tied.
Second, they have a mental reaction. Thoughts whirl through their head that they can’t control, which reveal their reaction to the situation. “Oh, my God.” Or “I can’t believe it.” Or “I didn’t mean to do that that.” Or “What have I done?”
Third, they have an active reaction, which means they do or say something. They may rake their hand through their hair. They may put their hands to their mouth. They may roll their eyes. They may glance away from the situation. They may begin to pace across the room. They may take a step back. They may say something. They may scream.
These reactions reveal the emotion they are feeling—happiness, fear, anger, disbelief, anxiety, etc.
The challenge for writers is to duplicate this three-step process so readers can experience whatever emotion a character is feeling as he/she moves through the story. The reader wants to go on the roller coaster with the character. We know that readers read for the vicarious thrill that the story gives them.
In Virginia Kantra’s Home Before Midnight, the protagonist Bailey Wells discovers the wife of her boss dead in a pool. In this scene, she’s questioned by the detective investigating the death:
Those hard, dark eyes met hers. Bailey felt a jolt in her stomach. (visceral reaction). “Did you like her?”
Bailey’s heart pounded. (visceral reaction) Nobody liked Helen, not even her children. She was like a wasp, shiny and dangerous, with an annoying buzz and a painful sting. (mental reaction)
Bailey moistened her lips. “I’m sorry she’s dead.” (active reaction)
Your job as the writer is to identify those scenes in your story and layer in the emotional reactions. One of the best resources I’ve found to help in this process is The Emotion Thesaurus—Writer’s Guide to Character’s Expression, which provides the physical signals, internal sensations, and mental responses for seventy-five emotions.
Next month: Down and Dirty, Step #11: Show Don’t Tell