How to Use Layers to Show Intense Emotions

by Jami Gold on July 1, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Stack of terracotta tiles with text: 3 Steps to Using Layers to Write Intense Emotions

One of my most popular posts shares tips for writing heavy emotional scenes. I think that post is popular because we often struggle with including emotions in our stories, especially when those emotions are intense.

In my own writing journey, capturing emotions in words (and in a way readers could experience) was one of the trickiest steps of my learning curve. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus helped me with that struggle immensely. However, I’m far from perfect and still need to tweak those emotional scenes many, many times.

This past weekend, a member of a writing group I belong to asked for assistance with his writing. He’d received feedback that his writing was strong and the story intriguing, but that it lacked an emotional connection for pulling in readers.

The character in his scene was going through such an intense emotional experience that he was numb. A “numb” reaction isn’t unusual for dark or deep emotions. In fact, it’s probably fairly normal (and often better than a melodramatic response).

But it makes writing the scene more difficult. How do we show numb and deep emotions at the same time? How can readers connect to an emotionless character?

I sympathized with the writer’s plight because of my struggles with the issue and shared some thoughts with him. And then I figured these tips might help us all, so I decided a post might be in order. *smile*

Step #1: Identify the Character’s Primary Emotion

The first thing we want to do is identify the primary emotion in a character. The Emotion Thesaurus doesn’t list every emotion, but we can usually find an emotion similar enough to give us guidance on how to show what we want.

The ET lists physical actions, internal (involuntary/visceral) reactions, and mental responses for different emotions. With over a page’s worth of ideas for each emotion, we have plenty of choices for how to show characters’ responses.

Step #2: Determine If the Character Is Numb

However, as I mentioned above, if a character is facing deep, dark, and/or intense emotions, it wouldn’t be unusual for the character to be numb. We need to know whether this is the case because this fact hugely affects how we show the character’s response.

In addition, if the character is not numb, we need to make sure we know what makes them so immune or resilient. One of Angela and Becca’s other books, The Positive Trait Thesaurus, is filled with ideas for character traits that could explain that strength, which we can then incorporate into the character.

Step #3: Add Layers of Additional Emotions

Option A—If the Character Is Not Numb

If the character is not numb, we can use the ET to show the character’s primary emotion. Then if the scene feels flat, we can add layers by showing other emotions (maybe even conflicting emotions) the character is also experiencing.

Our characters might wobble between one reaction and another. Or they might experience one reaction and then feel guilty or angry or something else and transform into yet another emotion.

Deep emotional scenes will often contain a whole emotional journey as the character works through competing layers of responses. For complicated journeys, sharing the character’s thoughts will usually be essential for readers to follow along.

His skin burned, hot and tight. How could she have thought chasing after the kidnapper—alone—was the smart thing to do?

No, worse than that. How could she have thought he wouldn’t have her back?

He pushed his muscles into a higher gear and leaped over a downed tree trunk blocking the forest path. Catching up to them was taking too damn long. Faster. Faster.

He obviously hadn’t made his feelings clear enough to get through that stubborn head of hers, but before he could chew her out, he first needed to save her life.

In this example, we see the character transitioning through elements of anger, frustration, hurt, maybe a touch of guilt, worry, determination, etc. By including a full mix of physical, internal, and mental reactions, we see the whole journey.

But if we’d left out his thought process—his mental responses as he thought the situation through—we wouldn’t see all the layers. We’d see the internal anger of his skin burning, and we’d see the physical action of him pushing himself, but we’d miss the layers illustrating why he’s pushing himself.

Was he pushing himself because of his primary response of anger? To understand why, readers need to see the journey through a full mix of responses for the other emotions.

Option B—If the Character Is Numb

If the character is numb, we might not be able to show their primary emotion directly at all. In fact, they might not have any physical, internal, or mental responses to show:

  • They might not act out in any way (physical).
  • They might be so detached that they’re calm (internal).
  • They might be so “shut down” that they have few thoughts (mental).

With intensely emotional scenes, one option I’ve discussed before is to use a less deep point of view. By pulling back, we might be able to essentially “tell” a bit about a character’s emotional state that we couldn’t otherwise.

However, we might not always want to create that distance. We might want to stay in as deep of a point of view as possible. In that case, we can—as in Option A—use layers to provide insight into the why behind the character’s reaction.

For example, a character who’s numb might be methodical and nearly “blank.” But other emotions might be driving the character to that numbness.

We can use those secondary emotions to show motivation. The methodical, unthinking actions can show readers that the character is numb, but hints of the other emotions can share the why.

Think of the primary emotion in numb characters as the what (what’s making them numb) and the secondary emotions as the why, and we can help readers understand, sympathize, or empathize with our characters. That understanding can help readers emotionally connect to unemotional characters.

The cabin door stood open, spilling light onto the covered porch. His heartbeat slowed, heavy and thick, and he stopped mid-stride on the driveway.

She’d left him.

Chills spread over his skin and invaded his bones. Fire. He needed to start the fire.

He forced his legs to carry him up the steps. One step. Two steps. Across the porch. Into the cabin. Eyes down.

At the hearth, he stopped resisting the limp weight of his arms. The load of firewood tumbled into the bronze tub. The metallic clangs sounded brittle in the empty cabin.

He didn’t let his gaze wander toward the hooks by the door. If he never saw the bare spot where her jacket should be hanging, he wouldn’t have to face the truth. He wouldn’t have to know.

In this example, we see a methodical, numb reaction to his shocked denial. But we also see hints of a secondary emotion of fear. He fears the truth and that’s why he’s in denial.

That secondary emotion gives the reader something to connect to. He’s numb, but readers are still connected to him through other emotions.

We might not ever straightforwardly show those secondary emotions. They might exist merely in hints or subtext. They might be shown only in the “negative space.” What isn’t the character letting himself think of or feel? What ideas is the character pushing away?

Even the most numb, unemotional character can still display hints in:

  • action (eyes down or a stumble/hitch),
  • internal (forcing calm breaths), or
  • mental (shoving away certain thoughts).

The character is experiencing emotions somewhere deep inside them, and it’s our job to show the cracks in their efforts to subdue those emotions. Or at the very least, we can reveal characterization by making it clear they are exerting effort to hide or avoid something.

Now, are either of those above examples stellar writing? Of course not. I made them up for this post, so they’re first draft quality. *grin*

But hopefully those examples are enough to show the possibilities for using layers to create a sense of intense emotions. Layers allow us to increase the depth and complexity of our characters—and the depth and complexity of their emotions. *smile*

Do you struggle with writing intense emotions? Have you ever written an emotional scene but received feedback that readers couldn’t connect with that emotion? Do your characters sometimes “go numb”? Does this post give you ideas for how to tackle difficult emotions in our writing? Do you have other tips to share?

(P.S. Don’t miss my 4th Blogiversary Contest!)

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26 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Serena Yung July 1, 2014 at 10:41 am

Hmm, I’m personally fine with the writer simply stating what exact emotion they’re feeling, along with explained reasons for why they’re feeling that way. (E.g. Reasons/ internal thoughts about this trouble….So they feel very depressed.) Okay that was a very crude example, but that’s just to show the structure of what I often see in novels, haha. I think it’s because I’m really used to this style of “narrated/ internal thought reasons for emotion” + “directly telling WHAT emotion that is” in books that it doesn’t bother me. But I do understand now that some readers don’t like telling words—i.e. something like “…And he was happy.”

(One example of that structure of explanation + told emotion, is from is from the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon series, where the style usually is:

“Author enumerates all those troubles that the hero is experiencing/ has experienced,
And the hero feels very dejected.”

Something like that, lol. BTW, this hero, Li Mubai, is a pretty emo and angsty character, I must say, even though I love his personality and character.

)

Even without the telling words, though, I find it very helpful to have those internal thoughts or narrated reasons/ explanations/ motivations for WHY they feel that emotion, as you’ve mentioned above. You made a good point about how such explanations give layers and complexity to the emotion. 😀

Oh, about troubles in my writing, yesterday something really hilarious (to me) happened. You know how my story’s written in Chinese? Well a non-Chinese friend of mine used a Bing translation to translate the first scene of my story into both English and French versions. This first scene was supposed to be dark and kind of horrifying/ scary, yet when my friend read it, she thought it was supposed to be cute and funny. XDD Oh no…

Apart from how using online translators will take out emotional flavors from the original language, I think it’s also because I need to make the emotion in the scene and in the heroine a lot more obvious, so that there’s no chance of it looking lighthearted and funny, lol! XD So I could for example use the internal thoughts method, as well as do some other things to make it clear that what’s happening in this scene is serious and really bad.

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Jami Gold July 1, 2014 at 12:57 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, I remember our conversations about how your experiences reading the classics established your preference for a more “telling” style. That’s exactly why there’s no “one right way.” 🙂

Most modern books avoid naming emotions, yet as you said, we can use the internal monologue and internalizations to do much of the same type of explaining. But no matter what we do, online translators are likely to mess up our words. LOL! Too funny. Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung July 1, 2014 at 4:09 pm

And not only the classics, it looks like the Chinese novels I’ve been reading lately, which were written during the mid to late 1900s, and one in 2005, like to “tell” emotions too, lol. So maybe it’s both the classics and Chinese books (or at least these Chinese books) that have this tendency. I really like comparing writing styles from different cultures and time periods! 😀 It really gives you a sense that many things taken for granted in our writing circles are just one particular style/ preference! The good thing is that my novel is also a Chinese one, so nobody will be surprised about me telling emotions, lol. The good thing about following the norm in your genre/ language is that people thus pay no attention to your style, so they can concentrate on the story itself. It’s a kind of camouflage/ blending in with the crowd to achieve some end.

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Jami Gold July 1, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh interesting! Yes, we’ve talked about the cultural differences a bit, but that’s fascinating. I wonder how much of that is based on Chinese literary tradition or the nature of the language or how people express thoughts and ideas within the language or… LOL!

Great point too about how conforming to genre expectations for style and language helps people pay attention to the story more. I’ve never thought of it that way before, but that’s an insightful point. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung July 2, 2014 at 7:30 am

Haha unfortunately I’m not Chinese enough to answer whether it’s in the nature of the language or the way we express our thoughts, lol! But I do know that we have a lot of idioms (usually four characters long) that express a lot of things, including many standard emotion expressions. For instance, bei xi jiao ji is one standard way of saying “feeling a mixture of sadness and happiness”. But many of the examples in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon are non-idioms…I could say maybe it’s because we have lots of ways of naming the same emotion, but that’s the same as in English too, so…Maybe it’s a Chinese literary tradition? Also, I do realize that in Chinese stories, there doesn’t seem to be that much variation in body gesture descriptions. It seems like there are only a few gesture descriptions we always use, like standard phrases. So PERHAPS it really is a Chinese tradition, lol. Maybe when I next get to talk to a pro in Chinese lit/ fiction, I’ll ask them about this, since I clearly don’t have enough Chinese reading experience…

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Jami Gold July 2, 2014 at 8:36 am

Hi Serena,

How interesting! So compared to our modern “standards” in English, Chinese literature might place a different value on “fitting in” or something similar, which comes out as cliche to us. That actually makes a lot of sense.

If you do get a chance to ask someone about it, I’d love to hear the results. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung July 2, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Oh! I didn’t think of it in that way: fitting in vs being cliched. That’s a good point! I didn’t realize I was making such a point until you pointed it out. XDD.

Ya I remember an English writer’s guide (fiction and nonfiction) advising people to NOT use idioms or other “standard sayings”, like “beyond the shadow of a doubt”, because, as you said, it’s cliched. Yet in Chinese, whether in fiction or nonfiction writing, if you DON’T use idioms and “standard sayings”, you will be considered an AMATEUR who obviously isn’t very good at Chinese! XD (Or you’re writing for children who aren’t expected to know that many idioms anyway). In fact, we use idioms SO often in our writing, lol, that it’s a norm to see them everywhere. An easy way to make people BELIEVE that your Chinese is great is to throw in some nice idioms in your writing. You can’t believe how EASY it is to fool people into thinking that I’m good at Chinese just by tossing idioms around that I’ve simply memorized (some straight from the dictionary, haha). XDD It’s pretty hilarious, really. Lol!

As well, I remember that there was this Chinese writer criticizing how some young people try to be creative and original by avoiding the use of idioms. He says, “It’s great that you want to be creative, but not when you replace it with phrases that are so longwinded, clumsy, and inelegant!” Haha from the examples he gives, I can see why he dislikes such “creativity”. I’m all for creative use of language too, but I think ultimately it’s what’s most effective for communicating what you want to say, right? If the creative phrase will express your meaning more accurately or powerfully, then by all means use it. But if the phrase seems awkward, clumsy, disruptive to the rhythm, etc., then you might want to reconsider this phrase and switch it for something simpler—though it doesn’t have to be an idiom. We actually have a similar issue in English where we want to be creative, yet some readers really hate new sounding phrases for some reason. Some are absolutely against made-up words, even if the word’s meaning is obvious! E.g. from a poem: “A raindark snail.” Is it just me, or isn’t “raindark” kind of clear in what it means to say already? I recall Faulkner making up a word like “pinkwomansmelling” too, lol. Weird looking, but I could totally understand. XD

Well anyway, in my Chinese novel, I use as many idioms as possible to make it appear “more Chinese looking”, if that makes any sense, lol. But I know I shouldn’t put in TOO MANY idioms either, or else it’d start sounding comical or that I’m showing off a bit too much. There was a satirical Chinese novel that deliberately uses barrages of idioms, which really made it sound hilarious, lol! I think there are two main reasons why Chinese writers (or people writing in Chinese) like to use idioms so often, apart from that it’s the norm. One, is because it sounds phonetically pleasant. Each character means one syllable, and four characters mean four syllables. It just sounds neat and nice to have a complex-ish meaning conveyed in just four syllables rather than in a whole sentence or sentences to convey it! So this is about being economical as well as about sounds. Secondly, there is a story behind each idiom, and many of these stories are historical ones. So if you use a lot of idioms, it gives the sense that your writing is historical and “deeply rooted in the Chinese culture” or something like that, haha. There does seem to be some social desirability to “carrying the weight of history/ culture in our writing” for Chinese fiction and nonfiction…That’s what I meant for using lots of idioms to make my writing seem “Chinese looking”, so that I’ll look like a first language writer rather than a second language writer which I am, lol! But yeah, a friend and I agree that what REALLY makes you “good” in a language, is not about being able to toss around lots of idioms or impressive phrases, it’s about being able to communicate clearly AND powerfully and precisely what you mean, and making it sound natural rather than awkward and forced.

So anyway, hmm…Interesting that using standard phrases can be seen as “sophisticated and cultured” in one culture, but “cliched and unoriginal” in another! Lol.

P.S. There are instances where not using any Chinese idioms at all DOESN’T imply low in sophistication. E.g. I think official documents and technical instruction guides use no idioms.

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Jami Gold July 2, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Oh, that’s hysterical about memorizing idioms to look good.

And you’re right that our main goal should be to communicate our ideas. It’s kind of weird that in English, one of the main reasons to avoid cliches is because people skim over them. (Although I could see the argument that “skimming” might be just the effect we want in some circumstances.) But as you said, if people stumble over the replacement, that’s not good either. So English literature seems to have the goal of being creative enough to stick–but not stick out. And that’s harder than it seems. LOL!

Wow, that’s so fascinating about the idioms being “shortcuts” of characters compared to using unique word choices. I can see that making a huge difference in the value of idioms. Anything creative is automatically going to sound clunky in comparison. So maybe the creative part is in how the idioms are connected to the story or characters?

That is all really cool! Thank you so much for sharing–awesome! 😀

Sharla Rae July 1, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Another great blog Jami. I recently purchased the Emotional Thesaurus and your tips will help to use it right.

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Jami Gold July 1, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Hi Sharla Rae,

Awesome! I know I gush about that book constantly, but I really can’t say enough about how helpful it’s been for me. 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions about it. Thanks for the comment!

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Autumn July 1, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Great post thanks Jami!
I think my biggest takeaway is to remember that often, someone ISN’T emotionally numb, they’re feeling something they don’t want to feel and blocking it.

The discussion with Serena about cultural differences is fascinating too! I have a related question- I’m working with an editor who’s fabulous in many ways, and has helped me improve my writing massively. But she’s very big on naming as well as showing the emotion. What’s your take on that?

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Jami Gold July 1, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Hi Autumn,

Exactly! Numb is overload and suppression.

On Facebook, my friend Gene Lempp added this comment to the post:

“Numb is not a lack of emotion in my experience, but an overload of emotion. I know when I feel this way it is generally because too many situations, emotions, plans, etc are in conflict and it forces a shutdown while the subconscious works things out. Numb, at least for me, is a very active time on the deep internal level.”

I thought that was a great way to describe the sensation and wanted to add his insight here. That description explains why looking for (and understanding) all of the different emotions for those layers will give us the ability to show more.

Hmm, as far as your editor question… Have you asked her why she recommends that?

All of the advice I’ve seen says to NOT name emotions (but there are some exceptions for certain genres, such as children’s literature). If you’re naming emotions on top of showing emotions, that can be even worse than just naming alone. Then you’re not just “telling,” but you’re telling and showing–which can be like doubly hitting the readers over the head with an idea.

Have you heard the advice: RUE? It stands for Resist the Urge to Explain. As long as we’re doing a good job, our readers don’t need us to explain. (Feedback from beta readers can help us find where we haven’t hit the mark yet.) If we explain, we’re treating our readers as though they’re stupid. If your editor thinks the emotion isn’t clear, the answer isn’t to name but to do a clearer job of showing.

That’s all IMHO, by the way. 🙂 (And as I mentioned, there are exceptions.) But I’ll admit that my first inclination is to question the quality of the editor. That’s why you should ask why she recommends that approach.

That said, some editors are great at identifying problem areas but aren’t good at coming up with solutions. Perhaps she’s good at seeing where there’s not enough clarity and is simply misinformed about the best way to fix the issue. As long as you’re aware of that weakness and can come up with your own fixes, that inability isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for determining whether an editor is “good” or not.

I hope that helps! Let me know if you still have questions. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Shah Wharton July 2, 2014 at 1:12 am

I naturally write in layers anyway, so this made lot’s of sense to me. Also, like an actor, I try to pull from my own experiences regarding how emotions and action connects. I also try to recall how much more guarded individuals react, because I let it all hand out 🙂 I take note from great movie scenes too, about how they put over emotion/beahiour.

But A&B’s Thesaurus is never far away. 🙂

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Jami Gold July 2, 2014 at 8:25 am

Hi Shah,

Good tips! Yes, my characters don’t lie to each other nearly enough. LOL! The perils of being a straightforward person trying to write secretive characters. 😉 Thanks for sharing your tips and thanks for the comment!

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Julie Musil July 2, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Such great tips, Jami. I tell ya, I struggle with this as well. Angela and Becca’s ET is a HUGE help.

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Jami Gold July 2, 2014 at 11:59 pm

Hi Julie,

Yes, between having the ET as a tool and knowing some tricks like these for how to use it, I’d like to think writing emotions is my “most improved” skill. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung July 3, 2014 at 6:31 am

(Just to reply to and answer your last reply, since there’s no reply button anymore, lol.)

Haha I’m glad you found that interesting and entertaining too, lol. Yeah the memorizing of idioms to make yourself look good. XDD

Being creative enough to stick, but not to stick out:
That’s a good way of phrasing it. 😀

” So maybe the creative part is in how the idioms are connected to the story or characters?”
Yeah, I think this might be it. I’ve also seen lots of instances where people make fun of idioms by substituting words to suit their specific situations, or to make silly puns out of them, lol.

Actually, apart from idioms, Chinese writers like to use these “four character phrases” too, which are not idioms, because they have no story behind them, yet they are still a very concise and phonetically pleasing way of conveying a relatively more complex idea. For some reason, we find four syllable phrases very pleasant to the ear, lol, which I find is kind of strange, since I thought “four” sounds like “death” in Chinese, so 4 is traditionally a very unlucky number…ANYWAY the point I was going to get to is that another way some writers use language creatively is to either create their own “four character phrases”, or to take existing 4 character phrases but substitute some words to suit the occasion. But whatever you do, modifying or creating a new phrase, it has to somehow sound natural and not weird/ clunky, lol. So yeah, the sticking but not sticking out point again, which I agree is a challenge. D: But kudos to the writer when they manage to pull it off! 😀

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Jami Gold July 3, 2014 at 11:10 am

Hi Serena,

Yes, the commenting system doesn’t allow unlimited replies or else our words would get really skinny
like
this.
😉

I even shared that tidbit about Chinese language and idiom usage with my family last night because I found it so interesting. So thank you–really–for sharing all that. 🙂

Wow, and you’re right that it’s surprising about the preference for 4-syllable phrases, especially if it brings “death” to mind. I’ve never thought about whether English had similar syllable preferences.

I know for myself, I hear the syllable rhythm over the whole sentence (or maybe broken down by phrases, like poetry). But I’ve never counted syllables before to see if it’s an odd/even thing, or if it depends on the mood we want with the sentence, or if it depends on the sentence before it. Rhythm is something I do by instinct, so I haven’t analyzed it to that level. 🙂 Interesting–thank you for bringing it up!

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Serena Yung July 3, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Lol for that skinniness XD

You’re welcome! Haha yeah, it’s really fun to compare English/ American versus Chinese (or another language)’s writing and linguistic cultures. 😀 Hope your family found the Chinese idioms issue as entertaining as we did. XD

Lol I actually don’t pay that much attention to English sentence rhythms beyond pure instinct either. And I only know about the even number preference (we find “two character phrases” more attractive than “one character phrases” too, and sometimes “one character phrases” sound unsophisticated/ slangy, haha) because my parents/ teachers explicitly told me about that Chinese preference. But when I write in Chinese, I can see what they mean too, as maybe even my limited Chinese reading experience got my brain used to even numbers, so odd numbers can feel strange and unpleasant sometimes. 😀 So I do seem to be thinking about “balancing my phrases to make them even numbered” nowadays, lol. It’s possible that this is all just a learned, not an innate preference, though, i.e. if almost all Chinese texts consisted of “odd-numbered phrases”, our ears would find odd numbered phrases more pleasing than even numbered phrases. ^^” The familiarity breeds liking effect?

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Jami Gold July 3, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Hi Serena,

That’s a good case for doing reading in the genres and languages we want to write in. LOL!

As I’ve often heard that the human brain prefers to see design elements and whatnot in a set of 3 (a group of 3 candlesticks looks better than just 2, etc.), I’d guess this might be a learned response for Chinese, meaning that because everyone is used to reading it that way, it sounds better. Not sure, but interesting. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Sonia G Medeiros July 3, 2014 at 11:42 am

Thans for this!

Sometimes I struggle with how much emotion to show and how to show someone who’s numb. In my WIP, my characters are left to fend for themselves in an apocalypse. They see friends fall and have to do things they never though they would to survive. Lots of emotion and situations where they might be so overwhelmed, they’d go numb.

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Jami Gold July 3, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Hi Sonia,

Yes, many stories will result in our characters going numb, at least for a temporary reaction to something big happening. And in some genres (like post-apocalypse!), going numb would be a big part of the story and character development. Hopefully this gives you some ideas for your stories. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Sheila Valesano December 11, 2015 at 7:32 am

Thank you for such insightful information.

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Jami Gold December 11, 2015 at 8:41 am

Hi Sheila,

Thanks for stopping by. 🙂 I hope it helps!

Reply

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