Describing Emotions

Telling rather than showing is one of those classic mistakes we all make as we start out writing fiction (no, I’m not opening that particular can of worms today). One instance when it can be really effective to show rather than tell is when describing your characters emotions.

According to an article on the “I Fucking Love Science”-website there has been a study at Aalto University, University of Turku and University of Tampere where researchers set out to discover how physical sensations are triggered by intense emotions. The image below is a an image map of physical sensation associated with a number of different emotions.



It’s important to point out that the color variation is not actually temperature related, but rather an increase or decrease of sensation. So, for instance, happiness triggers an increase in sensation in the whole body, but especially in the head and chest area. Sadness triggers an increase in the chest area and a decrease of sensation in the arms and lower body.

I thought this could be a good reference for writing character emotion. When do we blush? When do we feel like our heads will explode? Cold toes? Numb all over?

So, in the spirit of ‘Show, don’t tell’, let’s do an example.

Tell: “Jim was anxious.”

Show: “Jim shifted in his seat. He felt like a swarm of bees had nested in his chest, one by one slowly come out of their hive to start buzzing and fluttering about in there. It made his stomach swirl with unease, and a low humming sound filled his ears. For a moment he felt like his feet had lost their hold on the ground, and he might lift off and just drift away.”.

Does the second paragraph contain a lot more words than the first? Why yes, it sure does. But doesn’t it paint a better picture of Jim for you too?