One of the most frequent comments editors make on new writers’ manuscripts is to go deeper into characters’ emotions.
Readers come to narrative stories for an emotional experience. So authors, both of fiction and of narrative nonfiction, need to go beyond telling the reader how a character feels. The goal is to make the reader feel what the character feels.
If the character sees a snake and the writer puts “she was afraid,” the psychic distance will be distant, as if we’re watching the character through a camera. This is telling and not showing.
Using a metaphor or simile—Fear constricted her heart like a boa—is better, although it still labels the emotion. This technique is occasionally useful. A relevant simile does ramp up the drama. But for maximum emotional effect, we can go even deeper.
People experience emotion on two levels. First emotions are felt in the body, and then they are processed in the brain. New writers tend to skip the first step and go straight to the brain’s conclusion. This generates a label like fear. But if we stay rooted in the viewpoint character’s body and record their visceral response, we get a more emotionally resonant result.
Dense bushes lined the walkway leading to the front door. As she walked along the path, something long and black leapt out of the bushes. She shrieked and jumped backward, every muscle tense. A black snake slithered across the walkway into the bushes on her right. She froze, unable to proceed.
If we describe the stimulus and the physical response, the reader will conclude fear without our having to use the word.