She Narrowed Her Eyes: Emotions into Body Language

One thing I look for when writing a characters emotions is body language. How does anger translate in a person’s expression, posture and movement? How does shock? How should a writer transcribe what their characters feel into tangible body language?

Let’s break it down.

First, I want to thank author K. M. Weiland for introducing me to Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs) in her book Structuring Your Novel. Weiland credits the creation of the term ‘MRUs’ to author Dwight V. Swain. I’m going to simplify MRUs here:

Feelings to Actions to Speech

The writer can follow this path when creating a scene and the characters react to each other. Example:

Feeling: anger

Action: clenched fist

Speech: “Shut up.”

This can be written as:

Sophie clenched her fist. “Shut up.”

The anger isn’t mentioned, but it’s shown in her action and her speech (show don’t tell, anyone?)

So let’s focus just on the first two: feeling to action.

When writing, how can the proper action or reaction be shown by a character’s emotion? Here’s a few tips I use:

  1. Think of your own physical reactions to specific emotions.
    More than once in my life, I’ve bought a car. Usually, I just sell my old car to the dealer for parts. Now I drive my car until it almost falls apart, so that means I’ve had it for years. Dan, the car sales guy, suggested I say goodbye to the Probe as he handed me the keys to the Malibu. I had that car for sixteen years. That’s a lot of time in the car. I had bought it new and now it was worn old. Paint was starting to chip off on it; all these lights went off on the dashboard for who knows what reason; a few small dents decorated it here and there. It’s just a car, right? But I had a genuine emotional reaction when I walked out to the parking lot and stood by my old car. I choked up. I put my hand on its hood. I had to fight back the tears. I’m getting sad just thinking about it now. I can use those physical reactions when my characters are in similar situations and experiencing similar emotions.
  2. Reference the Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman.
    This great little book has emotions divided up by chapter and lists of physical reactions to them. While I highly recommend this book, I caution the writer to use the suggestions in it as jumping off points. Remember to express the physical reactions listed in your own writing voice.
  3. Remember each character reacts to the same emotion or situation differently.
    If Rex, the family dog, has an accident on the kitchen floor, each family member may react differently. Nine-year-old Josh thinks it’s funny (emotion) and laughs (action). Fourteen-year-old Amber thinks it’s disgusting (emotion) and screeches (action). Mom also thinks it’s disgusting (same emotion as Amber) and tells Josh to clean it up (different action than Amber).
  4. Collect unique actions to emotions.
    When you see an interesting reaction to a situation, add it to a list. You may be able to use it in your writing later. For example, Chelsey and Mick are a couple. They are out with a group of friends at a pizza joint and Mick starts blatantly flirting with another woman at the table. How should Chelsey react? Anger? Sadness? Humor? What are some typical actions to these emotions? Screaming at Mick? Flirting with a guy at the table? Laughing at Mick’s lame banter with this other woman? What if Chelsey did something not typical? Like, she starts to tap dance in the middle of the restaurant? Or, perhaps she starts flirting with the same woman? If you see someone react in an atypical manner to a situation, write it down.
  5. Use this cheat sheet.
    I found this infographic from the excellent website Writers Write.

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

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