The Problem with Physical Reactions

emotion thesaurus

Do you have yours yet? If not, why not? This should be on every writer’s reference shelf. The thesaurus gives lists of the different body language cues to different emotions, both external cues and internal, physical reactions. It gives mental responses along with signs of acute or long suppressed emotional responses. It’s a gem!

That being said, I’m going to share with you something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve read others’ works and am reminded of my own. I’m not sure I’ve got this pinpointed yet–why it bothers me, what to do about it, etc., so this may be a bit premature–but, hey, maybe writing this can help me figure it out.

There’s something funky about reading a character’s physical manifestations of his emotions while we’re in his POV. It strikes me as “telling” and outside the POV, and the more time we spend describing his physical reaction the more “off” it seems.

I plopped open my thesaurus to find an example and landed on “humiliation.” Physical manifestations include (top four here): body collapsing in on itself, a bowed head, shoulders curling over chest, angling torso away from others.

If the POV character was watching this in another character, it would be fine–and would probably speak of his interpretive abilities, or lack thereof, and therefore enhance his characterization.

But to have him do it?

Dan’s shoulders curled forward and he twisted away from his would-be girlfriend. How could she have said that? How could she have been so cruel? With his head bowed, he turned and left before she could do any more damage.

Do you see what I’m seeing? We have both his internal monologue and his physical reaction. One’s deep third POV, the other is telling.

According to The Emotion Thesaurus, internal reactions include weakness in legs, sluggish heartbeat, pain in chest, among others. We can certainly include one or two of these in the example above:

Dan’s knees threatened to buckle. His shoulders curled over the pain in his chest, and he twisted away from his would-be girlfriend. How could she have said that? How could she have been so cruel? With his head bowed, he willed his sluggish heart to surge blood to his legs so he could run away.

Now we’re telling the reader both his internal physical reactions and his external physical reactions, but we’re still telling.

Granted, there is no possible way we can be truly deep in Deep Third Person. There are all sorts of books teaching writers how to deepen their POV–and I highly recommend to any writer to study them and learn–but ultimately, that’s all we’re doing: deepening the POV. As long as we have to describe the character’s actions–Dan skulked to his car, climbed in, and jammed his key in the ignition–we’re always going to have a bit of telling going on.

But when we’re telling his physical responses–internal or external– to emotional stimuli, are we being lazy writers? Are we constructing powerful narratives that carry the weight of illustrating the emotional reaction, or are we relying on physical cues?

Believe me, I’m not the pot calling the kettle black. I’m just as bad–we’re all kettles. We suck in breaths, huff them out, roll heads back on shoulders, drop chins on necks, and, of course, we include the ever-popular raising and lowering of brows. This epiphany came only recently, so you’re likely to find evidence of me going against my own words in every book I’ve written.

I’m not saying to never illustrate the POV character’s physical responses, but I hope we learn not to rely on them so much. For a non-POV character, all this is fine–well, except for the internal physical reactions. No way could a POV character know the one he’s observing has a sluggish heartbeat.

But we need to be in the head of the POV character and show what The Emotion Thesaurus calls “mental responses.” For humiliation, these include: self-loathing, a need to hide or flee that supersedes all else, wanting the humiliation to end at all costs. These we can include in the narrative. We can illustrate the character’s thoughts (get in his head) and minimize the telling.

Dan’s knees threatened to buckle. How could she have said that? How could she have been so cruel? How stupid he was to approach her with anything more than a polite hello! He should’ve known she wouldn’t be able to see past the jagged slash down his face. Should’ve known she’d be repulsed. With his head bowed, he willed his sluggish heart to surge blood to his legs so he could run away.

I tried this without the first sentence (Dan’s knees threatening to buckle), but it seemed appropriate to show an immediate physical reaction to her words–whatever they were. I chose this one out of all the ones I’ve used before because it’s short, adding to the immediacy. And I chose the last sentence so it could slide naturally into what would happen immediately afterward–his actual leaving.

But I’m still using the same combination I used above, telling and showing his reactions through a combination of external, internal, and mental reactions. So maybe I’m wrong and this entire discourse has been a waste of the morning. Or maybe I stink at presenting examples.

Or maybe it’s an intuition thing.

There were some sentences in the manuscript I’m currently reading that didn’t need the physical cues at all–the narrative or dialogue told the me all I needed to know and carried the weight of illustrating emotional reaction. Some sentences were simply too long and descriptive of the physical reactions to be appropriate for a POV character. Some narrative or dialogue didn’t hold up well without giving a physical cue–meaning the author should either include the cue or strengthen the narrative/dialogue.

Well, I warned you I may not have a handle on what I’m trying to present here. I can’t provide a definitive solution to a problem that may not actually be a problem. But I can say I intend to try to minimize the POV character’s physical reactions as much as possible in my own work and let the narrative/dialogue carry the weight of showing the emotions I want to portray. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll figure out what I’m trying to say here.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Writing, Writing How-To Books, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Problem with Physical Reactions

  1. Linda, I agree wholeheartedly with your assesment of too many physical cues. I prefer internal monolog and action, along with the dialog to present reaction, or maybe some simple description such as: “She walked into the house on legs made of lead and water.” (After a life threatening scare). Nuff said. I think the reader gets a good idea how she’s feeling. Anyway, too much physical description annoys the heck out of me. I want to know the character’s thoughts and reactions. Much more than that is clutter. My opinion only, and not necessarily those of any one else. 🙂


  2. Gay Ingram says:

    My philosophy? When in doubt always go with your gut feeling.


  3. Hmm, this is interesting. But I’m not sure I fully agree. As a reader, I appreciate physical cues from the narrating characters. I’ve never found it out of POV. Aren’t we all aware of our own bodies? It would be strange to me if a character walked through life without ever being conscious of his body. At the very least, I have no problem with deep POVs telling readers not-so-deep basics, which the character may not be actively thinking about, but is certainly aware of (e.g., I see no problem with casually sticking in a reference to the character’s hair color while in his POV).

    But I do agree that there’s often a fine line between showing and telling, and showing is almost always preferable. No quibble there.


    • Linda Yezak says:

      I think it’s telling to the same extent that writing that our POV character got into his car is “telling.” Yes, we’re aware of our bodies, but do we consciously tell ourselves to open the car door and sit down? Some things we do automatically without thinking. Like, perhaps, tapping our toes in impatience. We may be doing it–we may be *aware* that we’re doing it–but we’re not putting much actual thought into it.

      That’s the fallacy of thinking an author can eradicate telling by deepening the third person POV. You can’t really get away from it.

      That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary to eliminate all physical reaction while writing in deep third, but I like the idea of keeping it fairly limited.


  4. Lynn Mosher says:

    From a non-ficitonist point of view, this is all very interesting. Will have to check out the book. Thanks, Linda!


  5. Sonya Contreras says:

    I just have a lot to learn.
    But I do know that I don’t want to be told too much—whatever that is…I start skimming. How do I reach that in my own writing….I condense and eliminate. But like I said—I’ve got a lot to learn.


    • Linda Yezak says:

      We all have a lot to learn, Sonya. I don’t think there ever comes a day when we can say we know all there is to know about excellence in writing. Good thing I love it so, or I’d get tired of studying it!


  6. P. Creeden says:

    Emotion is such a tricky thing! I’ve had a similar inkling to yours. Phew writing is a never-ending learning process! 🙂


  7. Harliqueen says:

    I got this book from a friend at Christmas, it is a great thing to have on hand just in case. I do tend to find my emotions a bit samey, really need to expand on that. Great post 😀


    • Linda Yezak says:

      The book is a great resource. I’ve found myself turning to it periodically when I can’t picture how a character would react to certain stimuli. The authors have books on negative and positive traits, too, which are on my wish list.


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