If there’s anything you should know about how I write, it’s that I am a cheater. I have cheat sheets. Loads and loads of cheat sheets. You might be surprised when I say this, but learning to write (well) is almost like learning another language. The language of capturing EXACTLY what you mean.

Whatever I’ve learned about writing has been from studying books and blogs, and with the help of the variously aspiring and successful authors in my critique groups. I had an idea for a book I couldn’t get out of my head, and have been trying to teach myself to write it. I didn’t go to university. I travelled. I bartended in Australia. I lived the life I wanted to, and then became the stay-at-home matriarch to a tribe of blonde-haired little hellions CHERUBS, the youngest of which will be starting kindergarten *gasp* this fall. oa8fe

Because I didn’t go to university, my cheat sheets have become my text books, my writing bibles. In fact, I’m whipping up a new sheet today based on a critique I received for Chapter 17 of my upcoming book. This new addition to my bible is all about emotion.

My problem with describing the emotional reactions of my characters is this: I tell. I’m a tattle-tell. Saying that your characters are sad or scared is just so EASY. But, a large chunk of writing actually lies in the things you don’t write. Readers like to figure out what’s happening on their own. In real life your mom usually doesn’t tell you she’s sad she’s got to catch a flight back to Winnipeg. You don’t get that play-by-play. But, you’ll see it in the slump of her shoulders while she’s washing out your children’s sippy cups just before she goes.

Let me elaborate. Wherever possible, I like active writing. Active writing means you have to use active words instead of passive ones. Example:

Sarah was given her diploma by her professor.


Sarah’s professor gave her the diploma.

This put me into a bit of a fix as far as writing emotions. It’s so easy to say:

Sarah was proud.

But, that’s passive. My (wrong) solution to the dilemma is something I have seen in other people’s work as well.

Pride welled in Sarah’s chest.

See? The was is gone. I activated the sentence. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Don’t do that. The emotion is not welling in Sarah’s chest. The reaction does not rule her body. Don’t NAME THE EMOTION. That’s telling. Show.

Sarah accepted the diploma, beaming, her heart pounding.

Your readers will then be able to understand Sarah’s pride all on their own. Not just that, they will connect with her. They will identify with her racing heart, they will picture the wide smile on her face. Simply announcing her pride will, in effect, distance your readers from feeling the emotion themselves. And, isn’t that why people read fiction in the first place?

Dan Alatorre (best selling author/figurative kicker of my writing as#) wrote a great post about describing his character’s emotional reactions in his blog.


One thing I’m constantly telling new writers is to show what’s happening to the reader, don’t just tell the reader it happened. That’s what people mean when they say “show, don’t tell.” When it comes to emotions, that’s harder, so I ask them: How does this physically manifest itself?

If you’re scared, what do you do physically, that can be described?

Put your hands to your face

Raise your eyebrows

Back away

Hold your breath

If you’re angry, what do you do physically, that can be described?

Clench your fists

Clench your teeth

Hold your breath

Stomp your foot

Turn red in the face

Look at those neck muscles. Wow. Tense.

Maybe a vein starts to stick out…

(Google an image of a person expressing that emotion and write down what you see. We’re visual beings, so we understand what we see. If we read it, we visualize it. Same thing.)

He has some other really great bits of advice on the subject too, so go check it out.

In time, hinting at these emotions without NAMING them will come more naturally. When I began to practice actively writing my story, my brain hurt. I had to take breaks after just an hour or so. Although I haven’t mastered it, I’m a lot better than I was. I’ll get better at this, too.

So how did I write out my cheat sheet?

Like this:

Happiness: Smile, laugh, hug, dance, hum, giggle, swing arms and twirl Julie Andrews style.

Grief: Slumped shoulders, cry, sob, cover face with hands, stare at the wall, tremble, hard swallows.

I’ve added roughly forty various emotions and a wide range of reactions which register for me. I think each writer experiencing difficulty conveying their character’s emotions should do the same. We all see the world differently. And, it is that perspective that makes the “voice” of various authors so interesting. What they notice about human behavior that their readers haven’t.

Do you make cheat sheets?