July 1, 2014

How to Use Layers to Show Intense Emotions

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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Comments — What do you think?

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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…  — Read More »

Sharla Rae

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


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?

Shah Wharton

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. 🙂

Julie Musil

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

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

(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…  — Read More »

Sonia G Medeiros

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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Sheila Valesano
Sheila Valesano

Thank you for such insightful information.


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Elizabeth Randolph

I like your example. I could feel it.

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