November 17, 2015

Strengthening Our Observation Skills — Guest: Laurel Garver

Observation Scope overlooking Toronto skyline with text: How to be a Better People Watcher

We’re now past the halfway point in NaNoWriMo. Yay! (Or Boo! if you’re as behind on word count as I am.) I’m still plugging along, but I know I wouldn’t be nearly as successful without the help of my guest posters this month.

I’m excited for today’s post because it ties in so well with issues we’ve talked about before as far as showing and not telling. I’ve mentioned before that one of the things the Emotion Thesaurus book can help us with is to avoid “naming” emotions.

But Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, the brains behind the ET, also recognize that it’s best to add our own spin to all those emotional cues we use to show our characters’ emotions. In fact, their One Stop for Writers website (which takes the ET and puts it at our fingertips with several other online tools) includes a My Notes section for us to add our personalized observations.

Sounds great, right? Otherwise all the legions of writers who love the ET might start sounding too similar when we all use the same wording for emotional cues. *smile*

But how do we learn what and how to observe? How do we develop that skill and turn it into something we can use in our writing?

Laurel Garver has the answer for us. She’s practiced this skill for a long time and has tips for how to start, what to watch for, and even for how to organize our notes. Yay!

Laurel’s proposal for this guest post came on the same day I learned about the My Notes section of One Stop for Writers, and I decided that was a sign of perfect synchronicity from the universe. Her great post only reinforces that impression.

Please welcome Laurel Garver! *smile*


Harnessing Your Emotional Intelligence:
Tips for Fiction Writers

How do you know the woman behind you in line at the store is annoyed, or that your mother is happy to see you? You read their facial expressions and body language. And chances are, you’re pretty accurate at reading others, because it is a skill you’ve been perfecting since infancy.

So why is it, when you sit down to write a highly emotional scene, that you struggle to portray how your characters behave toward one another? I’d argue that you have let your innate emotional intelligence remain a subconscious function. The trick to harnessing it for your writing is to make your people-reading skill a conscious process.

Become an Observer

How do you do that? Mentally shift gears from autopilot to analyst when you’re out and about doing all the normal things you do in daily life.

Really look at that annoyed woman in the ten-customer line at Walmart.

  • How does she carry her body?
  • What does she do with her hands and arms?
  • Her legs and feet?
  • How stiff or relaxed is her spine and neck?
  • And how about her face?
  • Take a mental inventory of the shape and positioning of the eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, jaw and forehead.
  • Listen to the spontaneous sounds she emits (sighs, grunts) and words she expresses.

Next, write down everything you see and hear. The more different kinds of people you can observe (varied ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds), the more quality raw material you will have from which to build accurate, unique descriptions of characters showing emotion.

Start an Observation Journal

I was first introduced to the concept of a movement journal in a college acting course. We were required to watch people and record our observations about how they conveyed emotion through expression, gesture, and posture in order to better embody characters on stage.

I found the exercise helpful for far more than our college theatre productions. The act of analyzing postures and gestures, and further, putting them into descriptive language, radically improved my fiction writing. My characters no longer “looked sad,” they curled in on themselves with sagging brows, downturned mouths, lower lips extended in a pout.

Concentrate on the Elements that Show

Taking the time to develop your emotional intelligence from a reflex to a conscious awareness will pay off hugely in your work. Your readers will appreciate the time you take to give them the cues rather than simply labeling an emotion (“Reese looked relieved”) because they engage at a deeper level with emotions they’ve had to interpret themselves.

Think about it. What affects you more, reading that Syrian refugees “are terrified,” or seeing one refugee family huddled together? Doesn’t the naming of the emotion seem to tame it, to make it an abstract concept?

The visual that you’ve had to read for emotional cues, meanwhile, will elicit a far more visceral response. Your emotional center, rather than your think-y intellect, has been put to work making sense of it.

How to Build an Emotion-Focused Observation Journal

Observing and journaling emotional expression is a type of research you can do nearly anywhere. Those previously unproductive hours stuck at your kids’ sports practices, doctors’ waiting rooms, airports, overcrowded stores, the DMV, etc. can be transformed into a rich laboratory for character development. The data you gather can be used again and again in any fiction project.

Here are some key things to observe in developing your emotions repertoire:


Look at the subject’s general stance and note the following:

  • What parts of the body are relaxed or rigid?
  • What do you notice about the overall posture or carriage of the spine?
  • How does the subject hold his/her head and neck?
  • How about the shoulders? Are they high, low, bunched, sagging?
  • How does the subject hold his/her arms and hands?
  • What are the positions of the hips, legs, and feet?

Jot quick descriptions of each part of the subject’s posture. Draw or doodle the subject’s posture, noting key elements that make it distinct. (For example, how are defeated spines different from elated ones?)


What motions does the subject make with his or her body?

Watch how the subject moves his/her:

  • head
  • neck
  • shoulders
  • arms
  • hands
  • spine
  • hips
  • knees
  • legs
  • feet

Are the movements:

  • slow or fast?
  • gentle or violent?
  • smooth or choppy?
  • practiced or haphazard?
  • elegant or sloppy?

Jot descriptions of the gestures with as many strong verbs and bold adjectives as you can think up. Draw cartoon panels depicting the most distinct gestures.


The face is where emotion is most prevalently shown. Drawing the expression first will help you most to describe it verbally.

  • Is the forehead relaxed, or do the muscles draw it upward or downward?
  • What is the position of the eyebrows—raised, lowered, drawn together?
  • Are the eyes widened, narrowed, looking a particular direction (up, down, side to side)?
  • Are the nostrils relaxed, flared, or in-drawn?
  • How about the mouth? Is it relaxed or tight? Curved upward or downward? Somewhat twisted? Slack?
  • Do any teeth show? Is an upper, lower, or corner of a lip pinched between teeth?
  • How about the jaw? Is it relaxed or tight? Does the subject tap or grind his or her teeth behind closed lips?

Consider also the overall shape of the face as expressions combine. Sadness has more muscle slackness or droop, while agitation has pinchedness and elation has widening and openness. Have an eye to the macro of the micro so that you can also write effective emotional expression with economy.

Keep in mind that nearly everyone can and will give deceptive facial expressions in the right circumstances. Think of the faked smiles that come out each Christmas when the kids open lame, age-inappropriate gifts from a distant great aunt. In instances where you believe a subject’s face belies the real emotion, look for postures and gestures that might indicate unease or a competing emotion.


Does the subject emit any sounds when expressing the emotion? Perhaps they grunt, suck air through their teeth, growl, sniff, or throat-clear.

Try to not only name the sounds, but also replicate them phonetically. In doing this, you will notice more detail about the quality of the sound and will be better able to describe it.For example, an exasperated sigh has more low, growling tones (uuungh) in it than a resigned sigh (hiiueh).

How does the subject speak about his/her feelings? Listen especially for:

  • the tone of his/her voice
  • descriptions of their sensations (“my legs ache”)
  • indirect references that expose inner motives or concerns (“are you going to open another register?”)
  • unique slang
  • idioms (definition and examples)
  • metaphors and similes
  • hyperbole

Shamelessly steal any colorful turn of phrase that strikes you (with the caveat these are spontaneous utterances overheard in a public place).

Organize Our Journal by Emotion

A special challenge for this kind of catch-as-catch-can research is keeping it organized. I highly recommend having a dedicated journal for this purpose with each emotion given several pages for your jots and doodles. Carry it with you as you go about the daily tasks of life and you can turn previously “wasted” hours into productive craft-building time.

If creating such a tool for yourself seems daunting, consider using my ready-made observation journaling tool, Emotions in the Wild, which has guided journaling exercises to help you gather observations on 39 different emotions.


Laurel GarverLaurel Garver is a Philadelphia-based genre-hopping writer. Her latest release is Emotions in the Wild: A Writer’s Observation Journal, a tool for fiction writers. She is also author of Never Gone, young adult fiction, and Muddy-fingered Midnights, poems.

An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she enjoys singing, hiking, and geeking out about Dr. Who and Harry Potter with her husband and daughter. By day, she works as managing editor of a scholarly journal on modernist-era literary criticism. You can find her on Twitter (@LaurelGarver), Facebook, and her blog, Laurel’s Leaves.


About Emotions in the Wild: A Writer’s Observation Journal

Emotions in the Wild coverAre you seeking to make your fiction more emotionally true, your characterizations deeper, and your character interactions more dynamic?

The best way to bring more emotion to your fiction is research it “in the wild,” through observation.

Emotions in the Wild will help you do just that. This series of guided journaling exercises will help you develop both broad and deep understanding of emotion as you people watch and record your observations.

Better yet, it will keep your observations organized so that you can use them again and again to enhance any fiction project. Once completed, the Emotions in the Wild journal will become your personal “emotions bible,” your go-to source for building emotionally-charged scenes in your own authorial voice.

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Thank you, Laurel! I love the idea of making our subconscious skills conscious (that’s a big part of what I focus on in my posts too) because you’re absolutely right that the more we’re aware of what we do subconsciously, the better we can emphasize it in our writing.

So this post is perfect for getting us to think about our natural people-watching skills. I’ve known romance authors who don’t know how to flirt themselves but can depict the actions in their stories because they’ve learned to observe the signs in others.

Even if we already have the Emotion Thesaurus memorized, adding our personal observations will help us portray those cues in our voice. Those of us subscribed to One Stop for Writers could capture our observations in a notebook or Laurel’s Emotions in the Wild journal and later transfer them to our My Notes section if we wanted.

Sometimes watching people express their emotions in a real-world setting can help us add layers or movement to our writing. Instead of a bare description of “tapping nails on a surface,” we might get ideas from watching a woman tapping her long bright-pink manicured nails on the metal edge of a Walmart conveyor belt at the check out counter.

In other words, details can bring the images we show to life. And the details we notice in the real world are a never-ending supply of ideas for our stories. *smile*

Do you enjoy people-watching? What’s the most interesting detail you’ve noticed during a mundane activity? Have you used tools from other disciplines (like this one from acting) to help you develop your writing craft? What unproductive times might your reclaim by journaling your observations of movement and emotion? Do you have other tips to add, or questions for Laurel?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Laurel Garver

Thanks so much for having me, Jami!

(I hope this time my comment doesn’t get eaten.)

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Uh…I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but the “terrified” description actually affects me more strongly than the “huddled together” one. To me, “terrified” feels more sharp and intense, while the “huddled together” feels a lot more mild and vague. I know that doesn’t seem to make sense, but that’s how my emotions work, I’m afraid! But I am in general far more affected by emotion words than by actions conveying emotion. In fact, I’ve actually asked a number of friends what they empathized with more, the action or the emotion word. Some said the emotion word, some said the action, and some preferred it if both the emotion word and the action are present. Most of the friends I asked are non-writer readers, so they aren’t so influenced by what the writer community values, haha. In a writer’s workshop, the leader of the workshop asked whether we emotionally connected more with “she was excited”, or to “she was jumping up and down.” I automatically thought “she was excited”, so I was very surprised when the lady said we connect to the “jumping up and down” more, i.e. we’re supposed to empathize with the action more. As another example, I recently read the Maze Runner series by James Dashner, and some reviewers on Goodreads think the writing is “poor/ mediocre” because Dasher names emotions a lot, e.g. saying Thomas is “confused”, “depressed”, or was filled with “joy”. These reviewers said that because the emotions are named and “told”, they…  — Read More »

Laurel Garver

You bring up an interesting point of what what may be a cognitive difference in how you process emotion, one that is, perhaps, atypical. I’m no expert on that, but the fact that so many do prefer showing to telling means shown emotional reactions reach more readers deeply. It’s something of a “rule” because it fits how most process emotional information, having a more empathetic response from raw data (voice tone, facial expression, gesture, etc.) than from emotion labels. I’ve done a lot of reading on this, though without a PhD in neuropsychology, I think I only scratched the surface. More research is in process that may make clearer how processing of emotional information happens.

Jami makes good points here about the depth of POV and reader expectation about the show/tell balance. Some genres call for more distance in POV than others, also.

Jemi Fraser

Great post! Showing is always tricky – but it’s vital to pull the reader into the story. I find my job helps me hone those people watching skills. As a teacher I get to see the gamut of emotions on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. Great fodder for a writer!

Laurel Garver

You have the added bonus that kids often let more emotion leak out than adults, who over time learn to hide it.

Thanks for coming by!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I’m thrilled with this post (what a shock, it’s on Jami Gold’s fabulous Blog. How could I not be thrilled?) Full of fantastic info and some great tips for honing my writing and observational skills. Can’t wait to pick up Emotions in the Wild!
And Jami, finished your book yesterday AND LOVED it! Looking forward to buying and reading the others in the series.
Thank you both for your wisdom 🙂

Laurel Garver

Thanks so much for your kind words, Tamara. I hope observation research bears rich fruit for your writing.


[…] for your characters is to borrow them from real people. Laurel Garver gives pointers for writers on strengthening observational skills. Kassandra Lamb lists 5 common myths about emotions, and Angela Ackerman discusses the emotional […]

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