How to Describe Emotion Without Physical Clichés

Many writers get tripped up on how to describe emotion without physical clichés. I understand why they use physical emotion clichés, though. In an effort to dodge the “show, don’t tell” bullet, a lot of writers have taken the external route in conveying the emotions of their character. As I’ve said before, there’s Bad Telling and there’s Good Telling when you’re creating a character through interiority in writing.

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How to express feelings in words: Hearts and stomachs and butterflies and releasing breaths you didn’t know you were holding… So many physical clichés!

Bad telling deals with you just stating a fact about your character and then taking all the fun out of reading for your audience. Good telling involves using story context and, more importantly, interiority, to paint a three-dimensional picture where you make your reader feel like a savvy part of the story experience, but you don’t exclude them from participating, either.

An Example of Bad Telling in Action

Here’s an example of how to describe emotion via Bad Telling:

It was the last night of the play. Moxie felt sad as she lined up for the final curtain call. There would be no more stolen moments with Tobin. No more excuses for her to look at him as he performed the role of Hamlet. Just like the real Shakespearean Hamlet and Ophelia were doomed, so was Moxie’s crush. Tears sprung to her eyes. She didn’t know what she’d ever do tomorrow night without all this.

How to Apply Interiority to Telling

Here’s an example of how to describe emotion via Good Telling, using the principles of interiority:

The heavy red curtain cut them off from the audience and the lights. Moxie stood, feeling heavy and rooted to the stage, and looked around, her eyes adjusting to the darkness as the clapping started in the house. This was it. The last curtain call. The last time she’d teeter on the brink of insanity as Ophelia. The last time she’d peek out from the wings and watch the audience nod along and mouth the words as Tobin, with a deep, slow breath, launched into the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The last time she’d get to tape the fake blood packet into his vest backstage, right before he went off to his fateful last duel scene. Moxie snapped to attention as the curtain swung up again. Tobin materialized beside her and grabbed her hand. The last time for that, too. When would she ever have such a perfect excuse again? The audience beyond the footlights, clapping and shouting, blurred, and she threw on her most dazzling smile, blinking away the tears.

Now, whether you think the sample itself is “good” or not, this is clearly an improved example of how to express feelings in words. You got more insight into Moxie’s character, into the context of her situation, and into the specifics of her emotions with the second example than you did with the Bad Telling snippet.

An Example of Physical Emotion Clichés

Let me introduce you, then, to another version of how to describe emotion via Bad Telling: Physical Telling.

The drape lowered on the scene, giving Tobin enough time, Moxie knew, to get out of his royal casket and join the rest of the cast for curtain call. She wiped at her eyes, hoping she wasn’t smearing her make-up. Her heart hammered, but it wasn’t the rush of finishing the show. Not this time. She hugged herself, her arms crossed tight. Tobin jogged up, fixing her with a dazzling smile. He tilted his head. There was a twinkle in his eye, something she couldn’t quite read. She relaxed her arms. Her hand grabbed his. The curtain swung up again and she felt a flush creeping up her cheeks.

Now. This is more subtle. There’s nothing technically wrong with this sample. Some might even find it well-written. Well, this is my blog, and you come here to hear what I have to say about stuff. And I am sick of Physical Telling. Over it. If you disagree, another blog is just a click away. (Don’t worry, this isn’t just a rant…I will also explain my reasoning.)

Why Physical Emotion Clichés Are Lazy Writing

First, the above is full of physical clichés. “She wiped at her eyes” isn’t telling per se, but it is such a cliché gesture for “Alert! Alert! Moxie is crying! Get it?!” that it might as well be telling. If I was to go on an actual stage and wipe my eyes to convey that my character is sad, or check my watch and tap my foot to convey impatience, a director would yell at me for being way too obvious. Instead of a director, you have me to yell at you.

Per my earlier post about describing emotions in writing, you’ll also know that what hearts, mouths, lungs, stomachs, and hearts do on the page is also, more often than not, a cliché. Hearts hammering, guts rumbling, smiles half-creeping up faces, eyes twinkling, all of that. Ugh. So if we can’t “show” a character tapping their foot with impatience, maybe we can tell the reader that their stomach is tightening in anticipation of being late. Maybe that will be better!

How to Describe Emotion in Fiction

Wrong. Because someone was once told “show, don’t tell,” and then was told “don’t use cliché gestures,” they have now started telling readers about the status of their main characters’ internal organs. Awesome! Except I’m not a doctor with a chart. I don’t care about the status of each little hunk of tissue on your main character’s body.

It’s when a writer starts telling me about guts and hearts and lungs and eyes that I most frequently highlight that section and write, “Interiority instead!” in my notes. Put that on a notecard and tape it to your monitor if you have this problem: Interiority instead!

This brings me to another specific subset of Physical Telling (dig deeper into this topic by reading my post on showing vs telling in writing). It’s when writers realize that stomach- and heart-status is cliché, so they think that the answer to “how to express feelings in words” is to move on to looks and gazes and twinkles of eyes and other body language cues.

Romantic Moments Are a Minefield for Physical Clichés

People writing anything with a romantic connection, listen up! Moments where you have your two romantic interests together are prime offenders in this vein. How do you convey chemistry without describing eyes lighting up and blushes and tilts of the head? I don’t know. You’re the writer. But don’t resort to the tired old fallbacks.

Why are we so good at these descriptions? Think about where we see them (key word here: see). That’s right. We’re visual creatures. When we watch movies or TV or interact with other human beings, these looks and tilts and subtle shifts in body language are glaringly clear. “Ah, he’s tipping his head ever so slightly when he talks to the girl he likes, that must mean he likes her, too…squeeee!”

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

But what works well on the screen doesn’t always translate to the page. Those looks that we’re so good and so hardwired to interpret when we see them don’t necessarily convey the same information when we read them. Sometimes things are hard to read when we’re reading, yeah? Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and we don’t have that kind of currency when we’re approaching how to express feelings in words.

Some things work on the page, others not so much. And the page is not a physical realm. Sure, some writing can be very visceral, and we can describe lots of action, but I don’t personally believe that the seat of emotion – as it is conveyed in writing – lives in the physical body of your characters. I’m always a fan of “interiority instead!” and of mixing the character’s inner life (and not their organs’ inner life) with what’s going on, plot-wise.

This is just one way to convey emotion. I happen to think it’s the right way. But, as such, I’m thrilled to start the conversation about Physical Telling and how it relates to “show, don’t tell.” What are your thoughts? Taps foot, checks watch, tilts head and glares.

ETA: JH’s point well-taken, I’ve added to the example of Bad Telling. Thanks, JH!

Struggling with how to express feelings in words? Hire me as your book editor and we can hone in on your protagonist’s emotions together.

50 Replies to “How to Describe Emotion Without Physical Clichés”

  1. This is wonderful:

    “First, the above is full of physical clichés. “She wiped at her eyes” isn’t telling per se, but it is such a cliché gesture for “Alert! Alert! Moxie is crying! Get it?!” that it might as well be telling. If I was to go on an actual stage and wipe my eyes to convey that my character is sad, or check my watch and tap my foot to convey impatience, a director would yell at me for being way too obvious. Instead of a director, you have me to yell at you.”

    My theater background has made me aware of how characters are moved on and off “stage”. I hadn’t made the connection to their “acting” once there.

    A little afraid to re-read my WIP for the signs of bad acting, but glad to be thinking about it now.

  2. KDuBayGillis says:

    I’m with Jim. . . afraid to re-read my MG WIP. But at least I know what notes to expect from you! : )

    (Doing a global search in WIP for references to bodyparts.)

  3. Hey Mary,

    While I agree with you in principle (and love you), I don’t think your first illustration does this debate justice. In the bad example you’ve given us 17 words. In the good example we get closer to 150 words. Of course the readers gets more out of it. I think it would be better to compare examples where the word counts matched.

    Also, your good example contains these seven words: “This was it. The last curtain call.” This is pretty basic writing that is close to the wording of the original “bad” example but buried within more illustrative writing.

    I think your readers might start to believe more is always better. And this would be wrong. You’ll just start to see an increase in queries for very long novels. LOL.

    What every writer needs to keep in mind is this simple fact: Why choose 17 words that only set the stage, when you can choose 17 words that set the stage, show the internal workings of your narrator and also move the plot? That’s where the art comes in: letting your words do double and triple duty.

    I’d suggest something more like: “On the show’s final night, as the curtain lowered, it also came down on Moxie’s budding romance with Tobin.”

    In this (still not perfect) example, you get so much more information and intrigue in almost the same number of words.

    Hope this adds something to the debate.

  4. Kellie — Be very afraid. 😉

    JH — Point taken! I’ve beefed up the example of Bad Telling. And also, let me reiterate JH’s great point: MORE IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER!!!!!!

  5. “Tobin materialized beside her and grabbed her hand.”

    Oh my gosh, I was so excited because I thought Tobin was a ghost. Lack of coffee does terrible things to my interpretation of text.

    Anyway, this is a GREAT post. It’s so easy to fall back on those same physical cliches, I think, because they’re so familiar. Everyone has experienced their heart pounding in anticipation/fear/anxiety/ect/what-have-you. I think it’s much more difficult to write about those physical responses in a way that’s new and interesting. Possible, but more difficult. But that certainly doesn’t mean people should be lazy about it.

  6. Eh, Mary, you’re a genius. Great post. I need to put this one to memory. Thank you so much. One of the most helpful I’ve read. Brilliant.

  7. Ahem. Well, I certainly need to go back through my MS and check for these things. They’re definitely in there. Thanks for your thoughts, Mary!

  8. JH, that sounds more like a tagline/logline :), and, yeah, this sort of interiority should be used sparingly for greater effect, otherwise Ms. Moxie’s gonna come across as a drama queen (see what I did there 🙂

  9. Bane, are you flirting with me?

  10. I have been married too long to even understand the process (other than throwing in many smiley faces :))

  11. Hey Mary,
    Just to add to your post and discussion…I recently came across an article on the “10 Rules of Writing Fiction” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one
    It was Elmore Leonard’s #8 rule that I’ve been reflecting on for the past two weeks: “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri¬can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.” Considering your post today and Elmore Leonard’s rule #8, I realized, after reading Hills Like White Elephants, that Hemingway had very little physical description, very little setting description (what he did have was basic: “hot” “long, white hills etc…) and no interiority in the story—just dialogue! What was even more amazing to me is that—in absence of any flowery language—I had an entire, well-developed movie-like picture in my head after reading it! Now, as I write my own YA novel I’ve decided to challenge myself to keep all physical and setting descriptions basic and instead focus completely on dialogue and interiority! Thank you Mary and thank you Hemingway.

  12. Hey Mary, good rewrite of bad writing! Question, in the good writing version, isn’t “blinking away the tears” a violation of your “physical telling” rule?

    I’m starting to feel that it’s almost impossible not to violate some writing rule or another. Is it kind of like what our mothers always told us: “Everything in moderation”?

  13. NicQ, I think you’ve got an interesting point about lack of physical description.

    Years and years ago I decided I would write a one-act play, just to see if I could pull it off. I recommend the exercise for everyone–it taught me how to move an entire plot with dialog only (and a sparse sprinkling of stage direction). It also taught me to get rid of unnecessary characters. I found that my fiction leaned on quite a few crutches, and while it wasn’t BAD, it was weak. My one-act will never get produced, but it was a lesson that improved all of my writing.

  14. JH said: “Question, in the good writing version, isn’t “blinking away the tears” a violation of your “physical telling” rule? I’m starting to feel that it’s almost impossible not to violate some writing rule or another. Is it kind of like what our mothers always told us: “Everything in moderation”?”

    I would throw another motherly cliche’ out there – “Variety is the spice of life.” I believe (hope!) what Mary is telling us is not to completely avoid ALL physical telling, but to mix it in sparingly and as needed. Same with plain old “telling.”

    In the “good telling” example, look at what we get: a statement about what Moxie felt (which hearkens to the “bad telling” example), the “physical telling” statement JH pointed out, and lots of specific details, some of which ground the scene in the moment (the red curtains) and some of which show what has come before (like taping the blood packet to his chest) and give clues to the relationship between the characters. I don’t know that it is the individual ingredients that go into the passage that are of primary importance so much as the final effect. What we get in the “good telling” passage is a little puzzle that we as readers get to figure out from the clues the writer has provided, which is what ultimately makes reading enjoyable (at least for me). “Good telling” gives readers just enough to steer them toward the point of the scene. In “bad telling,” the writer has taken all that fun away by drawing the conclusions for me; in “physical telling,” I have to fill in too much of the context to understand what all these physical reactions are telling us about the story and the characters.

    As a reader, I really pick up on the difference. As a writer? Still struggling with it.

    And I must say, the detail about taping the blood packet on Tobin’s chest transported me right back to junior year of high school, when I got to apply makeup to my crush…..talk about a heart racing! (ha ha)

  15. To add to JH’s last comment, I cringed while reading Mary’s “Bad Physical Telling” example mostly because the descriptions went on and on. I’ve spent a lot of time studying my favorite writers (currently, in YA, Jonathan Stroud) and I see plenty of “he wiped at his face” mixed in with more quirky, funky descriptions. I guess again, it all depends on what the “essential’ thing you’re trying to describe is.

    Also, Mary’s example reminded me of the very last scene of Student Confidential (if you’d like a laugh, go to Youtube and search for “Worst movie ending ever. Extra unintelligle speak bit.” Trust me, you’ll never be the same).

    In text, the sequence would look something like this:

    “There will be no counseling today,” Frank (or whatever) said, smiling. “Or else I would have to sit at the other side of that table.”

    In response, the other boy smiled too. Then, because this moment was picture perfect, Frank felt tears welling up in his eyes, which he immediately tried to brush away by smiling all the more.
    The boy smiled again.
    Frank, still smiling, still crying, rubbed at his mouth. He cringed at the pain, but found some way to smile through it.
    Now the boy laughed, his chest heaving up and down.
    Now Frank laughed.
    Now the boy nodded his head.
    Now Frank nodded back.
    One last time, Frank smiled, his smile reaching from end to end.
    One last time, the boy smiled back.

    -Fade to black-

  16. Physical telling is one of my biggest pet peeves. Thank you so much for this. 😀

    I feel like Laura Ruby’s personal publicist lately, with how much I’ve been rec’ing Bad Apple all over the Web, but…

    Seriously. Anyone who wants to see, very clearly, how to avoid cliche’ – read that book. I did not see one cliche’ description in the entire story. Why? Because the author showed everything through the MC’s unique viewpoint. Through her *head* not her body. When you really (really) know your viewpoint character, cliche’ writing is easy to avoid.

    And this post is also a good reminder that, while watching TV and film can help you with *some* aspects of fiction writing, the best “textbook” for an aspiring novelist is a well-written novel. Don’t just read them, study them.

  17. I agree with Lydia on the point of really, really knowing your character tends to keep you from having them repeat stock images and gestures. The interior life of a unique individual has a voice, and it is this voice I love to find and attempt to write on the page.

    Thanks Mary, for the insight and examples of showing vs telling in fiction.

  18. Thanks for the post, it’s helpful. This is a particular point of frustration for me.

    Some of my beta readers *demand* to know what the MC is feeling, by being told, explicitly. Are they being lazy readers? Are they just used to bad writing and expect to be spoon-fed the emotions by name? Or am I failing with my “good showing” writing attempts?

    For fun, here’s an example combining bad body showing plus telling:

    “Susan felt her adrenal glands spring into life, sending spurts of cortisol into her fourteen-year old body, because she was very, very scared.”

  19. Adele Richards says:

    I Heart (lungs and spleen) You.

  20. Wow, two “I love you”s for this post today. *blushes, heart hammering*


  21. I just love this post. I don’t even have anything to add to all the wonderful comments that have already been made, but I felt I needed to tell you I love this post. This showing/telling stuff has been bothering me lately and you have perfectly articulated exactly what about it has been bugging me.

    Thank you!

  22. I’m putting “Interiority instead” on a notecard above “Serenity Now.” Okay, not really. But it is going next to the thirty-point font question: “Does this advance the story?”

    The one example of physical telling that works is a scene in one of the Tiffany Aching books, when the Pictsies are watching Tiffany. “O waily, waily, it’s the crossing of the arms.” “No, no! Not the pursing of the lips!” Daft Wully beats his head against a wall or some such. It’s a) observed physical telling by the comic relief, b) it tells the reader loads about them and c) is done with a wink to the reader.

    I shall be asking, “Is this a Pictsie point?” as I comb my manuscript looking for physical telling.

  23. I’m pretty guilty of this. I think writers fall into this because it’s much, much easier to describe how the MC’s heart is pounding or how their stomach is clenching than to use interiority.

  24. I hate those little cliches as well. And yet, I still find myself using them off and on. It’s a good reminder. Better put that sticky note up for me, too.

  25. Gail Shepherd says:

    I get told by my readers that I need to ramp up emotion, too, Tamara — “how is she feeling?” is the number one question I get. I think what they mean is not that I need to add in lots of tear-wiping and “she felt lonely” phrases, but that I need to make sure I’m conveying my MC’s emotions in subtle ways. I think the reason Hemingway can completely dispense with interiority and physical descriptions of characters is because he’s an absolute master of mood and tone. So there’s a lesson in that as well: you can convey emotion through atmospheric details, through rhythms and characteristics of speech, through the metaphors and similes you choose, through your diction, and through the way your MC sees the world. It’s harder to do, but oh, how much more satisfying, for both reader and writer.

  26. Wow, this is an awesome post! A while ago I came across an excerpt that wasn’t badly written but left me feeling detached from the protagonist, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. I knew what the character was doing and how he felt, but I couldn’t connect or sympathize with the poor guy. Thanks to your post, I now know that the piece was missing interiority — what it had instead was lots of physical telling. You did a great job of spelling it out. Thanks for the epiphany, and add me to the list of admirers! 🙂

  27. Great post Mary, I’m going to check my WIP now and make sure it isn’t full of physical descriptions 🙂

  28. Wow, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Great post.

  29. *Hangs head in shame and rubs her temples, trying to ignore the familiar heaviness forming in her gut that always arises when she recognizes her mistakes. Returns to revision process, hands trembling along with her nerves, as she begins killing her darlings.*

    *Adds Tobin to Cool Name File.*

  30. Melissa K says:

    When I read this post, my eyes sparkled and the corners of my mouth lifted. At the same time, I felt a twist of dismay in my gut as I remembered all the references to viscera in the manuscript I trashed last year. But then a heavy weight lifted off my shoulders–because I did indeed trash that piece of crap!

  31. Hahahaha! This post generated confessions of love from some of you…and deep, sinking dread in others.

    I LOVE IT!

  32. Thanks for the article. I’m definitely going to have to throw my manuscript away and start all over again. 🙂

  33. YES. This is just the post I needed.

    I am a definite victim of this (or… my work is a definite victim from me!)

    There is a lot of fear in my WIP and I’m always saying things like ‘her heart beat hard’, ‘goosebumps snaked over her skin’ etc. I just haven’t been able to figure out a better way to do this.

    And it’s because of this: I am too visual. I am taking ‘show don’t tell’ too far.

    Thanks for hammering this point home.

  34. I think that physical cliches should be used less when it’s the character thinking about their own actions. (he tilted his own head…not that you would write that but you get the idea.) But if your character is observing someone then the physical cliches make sense because that’s what you would see. I always go back to my everything in moderation opinion, LOL, but I think that applies here.

  35. This and the interiority post are excellent. They’re things you notice when you’re reading (I especially notice the external physical telling in new writers’ stuff), but maybe you aren’t quite sure *why* something feels off. These are the sorts of things you sense when you’ve read tons of close-but-not-enough mss and start to pick out things like this. Thanks for the posts, and keep them coming!

  36. My immediate reaction to this is: Yes and no.

    Yes for ditching gestures and physical descriptions that are overused. Yes for including interiority.

    But why must it be all or nothing? People are physical animals. They do chew their nails and twist their hair and cry, they do crack their knuckles and sigh and blush. I can tell you that when you’re feeling nauseated, you are VERY aware of your stomach. When you are shaking and trying not to shake, it’s all you can think about.

    Why not just try to find original ways to describe physical actions, and mingle them with interiority?

  37. Oh thank you, eek, that is a very helpful post. But can you expand on interiority? I kind of get it, and in my teenage novel – accepted by publisher and now at revision stage – I have more than one clenched stomach, I blush to confess..! Are there prompts I can use to free me from using this kind of shorthand?

  38. Thanks so much for this.
    Yikes, I’m sensing a major re-write coming on!

  39. Thanks for all the information you give on writing. Showing and telling and all that’s involved is complicated and seems to keep getting more complicated as different strategies aren’t effective any more. Back to the drawing board. 🙂

  40. Hello, this was a useful post, and coming at the right time for me since I found myself bogged down with guts and hearts and eyes and gazes. I literally Googled what to do and found your blog. but what do you suggest re: characters outside of the close third person–aka characters being observed by other characters? especially when pacing does not allow for extended interiority? or maybe not interiority any at all?

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