Describing Emotions With Physical Cliches

Without further ado, here are the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse with regard to describing emotions:

  1. Eyes
  2. Hearts
  3. Lungs
  4. Stomachs
describing emotions, showing emotions in writing
She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder at the Four Horsemen coming for her lazy writing…

What do I mean? These four areas of the body are the well-worn favorites of writers everywhere when it comes to describing emotions of any kind. Count how many times you’ve seen the following (or similar) phrases.

Well-Worn Favorites in Describing Emotions

She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder.

He cast his eyes to the ground.

My heart clenched in my chest like a giant fist.

His heart knocked against his ribs like a caged bird.

She let go of a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

Timmy gasped for air like a drowning man.

The sound of his raspy breathing was the only noise in the otherwise death-silent room.

A gnawing feeling radiated from her guts.

Acid roiled in my stomach, threatening to make an exit up my esophagus.

And on and on and on. Now, that’s not to say that describing emotions in this way is inherently bad. It’s not. But as writers, you should always be thinking about how to describe emotion in creative ways. There aren’t many areas of the human body that act as emotional centers. Eyes, hearts, lungs and stomachs are the four biggies. A lot of stuff happens at these hotspots as a character moves through the emotional character arc of a story.

Innovate How You’re Showing Emotions in Writing

But every time you’re showing emotions in writing with eyes darting, a heart clenching, breaths catching in throats or guts rumbling, just know that these Four Horsemen appear in almost every manuscript. It is your job to put a fresh twist on describing emotions and giving your readers new images (read more about how to write emotions in a story).

Just because you know everyone struggles with this problem and just because you want to easily jump to showing emotions in your writing doesn’t mean you can get complacent and fall back on the stuff I’ve outlined above.

I issue you a challenge and throw down the gauntlet! What are some fun ways you mix up describing emotions in your manuscripts?

Characters need to be believable and relatable in order to hook readers. Hire me as your book editor and we can hone in on your protagonist together.

17 Replies to “Describing Emotions With Physical Cliches”

  1. I have no advice; I agree this is wicked hard. Every time I want to use something like that, I slow down and try to think deeper into the character and the situation and the emotion, and I look for a different way of portraying the same end result. I rarely succeed, but sometimes it works.

  2. LOL. After reading this I’m pretty sure my story might START the apocalypse the horsemen appear so often. But that’s what revising is for, as soon as I can drag myself away from my daily dose of blogs.

    Thanks for the advice!

  3. He cast his eyes to the ground always strikes me as funny since he must first pluck them out, right?

    In emotional situations, writers seem to get wrapped up in the words. Note the frequent use of descriptive prepositional phrases and “like” in the above examples. Avoid these and it forces you to describe actions and reactions.

    Show that the stomach/heart hurts by showing what the character does in response to the pain rather than telling the reader what the character feels. Each person does something different in response to pain like this. Some drink or wish they had a drink of milk/water/juice/soda. some eat or wish they had bread/antacids/candy/ice cream/crackers/cup of noodles to eat, some rub their ribs or stretch or burp.

    Show a character’s conscious effort to make breathing slower/quieter/deeper/shallower to indicate the character is thinking about what would ordinarily be an unconscious activity.

    Avoid eyes altogether as it would not be something your narrative focus character would be in a position to observe herself doing.

    1. Wow, I found this advice very helpful. I was actually looking for something specific for writing song lyrics, but can not ignore how this can add a much deeper dimension to all writing. Thanks

  4. As I read this I let out a gasp as my stomach dropped and my heart clenched up high in my throat and I looked around the room in dismay. My poor ragged manuscript!

    Thank you Mary for another goodie… I’m sure I am guilty, oh so guilty!

  5. I do this stuff all the time, but usually I just make my characters smile or laugh/chuckle/scoff too much. For me, it started when someone told me I couldn’t just announce that a character felt a certain way, I needed to describe their reaction to that feeling in a way the reader would understand and the emotion the character was feeling would be implied. Describing the character’s reaction to their reaction to an emotion (as Claudia suggested) seems a bit overworked. Perhaps focusing on something nearby but not necessarily synonymous with the body part? Instead of the eyes darting, maybe the mouth or lips twitch. Instead of a pounding heart or gaspy (gaspy?) lungs, the character might move in a jittery fashion or feel light-headed.

  6. Demetra Lee says:

    Thank you for nailing this down for us so well. It’s always a challenge to come up with “fresh” stuff and this is one area that if you can accomplish that as a writer, your work will be a few steps above the rest.

  7. Mary Ann Duke says:

    Mary, you look quite young in your pictures (late 20s??) How did you learn so much about writing in such a short time? I’m a grandmother, have three books and over 75 articles published and you are making me THINK, THINK, THINK that much of my writing STINKS!

  8. Can I start thinking about that later? Like around draft seven? Because if I worry about that NOW I’ll never finish my story.

  9. Dee Keymel says:

    New writer gets fresh ideas, even if advise is old. Thanks.

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