Character ‘interiority’ and clichéd physical reactions

HareBrain

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As I mentioned in another thread, I got some feedback from a specialist YA editor advising me to cut most of my physical reactions expressing the POV character’s tension, sadness, etc. I was tempted to dismiss this, because one of the things we’re taught as writers is that showing is usually better than telling, and physical reactions seem like the epitome of showing.

Telling: she was scared.

Showing: her heart beat harder in her tight chest; a chill crept down her spine, etc.

But there are problems with this showing. In many SFF novels, characters encounter stressful situations every few pages. There’s only a limited number of physical reactions to describe, and only a limited number of ways to describe them. Beyond that, it becomes repetitive, or the effort to maintain originality leads to tortured overworking.

I would like to propose a third way, neither telling nor showing: invoking. (This is my idea rather than the editor’s, and I think goes beyond what she suggested.)

Invoking would be to create in the reader the same emotion as the character, by skilfully expressing what makes them feel that emotion (and so experience that physical reaction) in the first place. Where a reader is already feeling the character's emotion, it’s redundant to write it, and leaving it out makes the writing tighter. Conversely, if we're not able to invoke even a mild version of the emotion the character is feeling, the reader isn't likely to empathise with it anyway, so it will read as not credible.

Here’s the example that set me on this train of thought, from @Jo Zebedee's latest crit piece.

[A boy has come to Shug's spacecraft yard wanting to be taken on as a flyer, and been turned down]

***
Shug waited until the boy turned away and headed back into the Needles before going back into his office. Outside, the familiar sounds of the yard went on, the clanking of metal on metal, the high-pitched sizzle of steel-grinders. The whine of an engine –

There were no flights scheduled. With a low feeling in his stomach – a dull knowledge, if he was honest – Shug raced from his office.
***

The bit in red is a physical reaction, and I contend that it's redundant, because we already feel what Shug is feeling (probably more so reading the whole piece rather than the brief context above). The information that there are no flights scheduled, the terse way it is expressed, and then the word "raced", all combine to create the "oh crap" feeling that is expressed by the bit in red. For me, the paragraph works just as well, and is tighter, with the red bit removed.

So how is invocation best achieved? I think it's just by getting the character's emotional state into the thought or fact that's being related. Sometimes of course you will need interior thoughts or physical reactions as emphasis, but the less these are used, the less repetitive they will become.

Discuss at will.
 

Dragonlady

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This is really interesting. I am working on a probably YA character with ananxious protagonist whose extroverted dad is determined to marry him off and I have already noticed myself repeating heart pounding type language so something to think about. so I have lots of this:

Why are they cheering? Oh- we’re here to save them. Joseph’s heart went a notch faster and his stomach churned.


this is perhaps on the way to being better:

Let’s just get out of their hair for a bit, he’d said. Get some fresh air. Joseph knew what that meant. Joseph soaked in the silence, drank it, before his father could fill it worth words.
 

msstice

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@HareBrain I like your word "invoking". This meshes with the idea of print being a participatory medium.

I really like it!

We narrate enough background, events and a character's reactions to allow the reader to use their own knowledge of psychology to infer their emotions, because like in real life, they now have a model of the character in their heads. I can see where this takes skill.

Also, different people have different levels of imagination, so how do you make sure you make the less imaginative keep up with the more imaginative without boring the more imaginative?

There I got through a whole post without using the s*** or t*** words.
 

jd73

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I wonder if your editor's reaction is not so much against physical descriptions of emotional states, but of cliched ones - heart hammered in her chest, palms slick with sweat. Personally I like physical descriptions that are apt but that are also unique. I would struggle to see how "she was scared" is better than "Her body thrummed with nerves" or something a little more out of the box.
 

Topher

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This is really interesting, and something I've been coming up against as I've been trying to get into creative writing. There're only so many sweaty palms we can take, and I think your idea of invoking sounds like a great alternative. Any more thoughts on how it is achieved? The first thing that comes to mind is with the form of the prose: short, snappy sentences for anxiety or nerves; longer, introspective, self-questioning sentences for being unsure or wary; that kind of thing?
 

HareBrain

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I wonder if your editor's reaction is not so much against physical descriptions of emotional states, but of cliched ones - heart hammered in her chest, palms slick with sweat. Personally I like physical descriptions that are apt but that are also unique.
You're right, and a truly creative description is a joy (as long as it doesn't feel overwrought). But I think most of us would struggle to come up with many unique expressions of the usual emotions, so in a fairly action-heavy story, most of the time it would be better to be able to get away without them.

I would struggle to see how "she was scared" is better than "Her body thrummed with nerves" or something a little more out of the box.
My point was that we can often do without either. But I think I possibly would prefer "she was scared" in many places, because it's simple and doesn't alert us to the writer trying to find a new way to express it. (Though "thrummed with nerves" could certainly work well in others.)
 

HareBrain

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There're only so many sweaty palms we can take
Yes, in one of my books a character had so many cold-sweat episodes, a beta reader asked if he had hyperhidrosis!

Any more thoughts on how it is achieved? The first thing that comes to mind is with the form of the prose: short, snappy sentences for anxiety or nerves; longer, introspective, self-questioning sentences for being unsure or wary; that kind of thing?
Yes, I think so. And use the energy you would have spent describing the emotion, to instead focus on describing the emotion's stimulus. If the character is afraid of something, describe the thing in the most scary way you can; if they are emotionally hurt, invest their thoughts with poignancy, etc. I don't have any better answer than that at the moment, as it's only really been since reading Jo's crit thread that it occurred to me.
 

jd73

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You're right, and a truly creative description is a joy (as long as it doesn't feel overwrought). But I think most of us would struggle to come up with many unique expressions of the usual emotions, so in a fairly action-heavy story, most of the time it would be better to be able to get away without them.



My point was that we can often do without either. But I think I possibly would prefer "she was scared" in many places, because it's simple and doesn't alert us to the writer trying to find a new way to express it. (Though "thrummed with nerves" could certainly work well in others.)
I get what you're saying. To me, it's just ... lower quality writing, less rich. For me, the ideal art of it is to find new ways to say it without letting on - to choose metaphors and whatnot that people go "I know exactly how character X is going through" without any rolleyes or cliches or wobbling of the fourth wall or other signs of a writer trying too hard. But in something action heavy, you're right. I think the key there might be to create the fear rather than report on it; have whatever is happening be sufficiently convincing that readers would think: of course they're scared. Who wouldn't be?
 

tinkerdan

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This is not really the best of examples.
There were no flights scheduled. With a low feeling in his stomach – a dull knowledge, if he was honest – Shug raced from his office.
And I'll tell you why--who knows maybe I'll even show you why.

The first thing; as I've said elsewhere--new writers often have the wrong idea about what is show vs tell.
There are a couple of levels of show that have to be considered before you identify something as show. And though I might agree there is the sound of something like show, it is also mostly something else and taking it away from the writing causes a problem.
You say what problem.

Well what this(With a low feeling in his stomach)is is part of the closeness to the character--part of the POV.
When you took it out, the first thing I noticed was that there was a greater distance from the character.
The internal brings the reader closer to the character not so much does it show.

The show part of this is--if you hunt through the rest--everything that supports or validates that feeling.
In this case most of that comes after that line(so if anything it is the cart before the horse)as the narrative unfolds we see the why--the reason that he has had that reaction. Sometimes it is better to set the reader up prior with the reason and then the emotion.
Basically in this instance the show only becomes show after we see all the why.

However the closeness to the character will be damaged by removing those parts.
 

HareBrain

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I think the key there might be to create the fear rather than report on it; have whatever is happening be sufficiently convincing that readers would think: of course they're scared. Who wouldn't be?
Absolutely -- in case my original post wasn't clear enough, this is exactly what I was suggesting.

In this case most of that comes after that line(so if anything it is the cart before the horse)as the narrative unfolds we see the why--the reason that he has had that reaction.
I'd disagree with that -- I think "There were no flights scheduled" is enough to tell us that he thinks one of the craft in his yard is being stolen, which is enough for us to create the sinking feeling in our own minds. But it just goes to show that different readers read things differently, and you're never going to account for all interpretations. Which leads us to this:

Also, different people have different levels of imagination, so how do you make sure you make the less imaginative keep up with the more imaginative without boring the more imaginative?
Er, dunno. :unsure: ;)
 

Wayne Mack

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Rather than describing the emotional reaction of the character, I find myself trying to generate the feeling in the reader through the pacing of the sentences. For slow moving scenes, I usually fall back onto longer sentences, while for action sequences, I will rely on short sentences and even one- or two-word fragments.
 

.matthew.

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I find shifting focus to other parts of the body to be helpful in breaking up the repetition. For example, you could talk about them shifting their weight or edging back or any number of physical responses, as body language is a huge part of how we communicate our emotions.

A further thing I found helpful was oddly enough a guide for drawing or sculpting facial expressions.
emotions_and_facial_expression_by_cedarseed-ds1wwv.jpg

I'm not saying describe a person's entire face all the time - as that would probably be worse than repeating the whole heartbeat thing. Instead, you could just pick out one thing that highlights the underlying feeling.

This image is large enough that you have to zoom to read stuff, but it's all clear if you do.
 

tinkerdan

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However it is relevant and it adds when you continue on and see why he had that reaction.
I'd disagree with that -- I think "There were no flights scheduled" is enough to tell us that he thinks one of the craft in his yard is being stolen, which is enough for us to create the sinking feeling in our own minds. But it just goes to show that different readers read things differently, and you're never going to account for all interpretations. Which leads us to this:
Just having him rush out is just a response to a sound. The internal was a response to his accountability and should only be considered irrelevant if there was no reason for it. You have to think it through before throwing baby away with the bathwater.

In my life--at work:
The day that there was an explosion coming from the next room, it was not:

An explosion rattle the wall at my back and I ran out of the building.

It was:
The explosion rattled the wall behind me, my heart elevated and my nerves nearly weakened my knees; I forced myself forward until I could run, telling anyone I encountered, 'We need to leave the building.' When I was outside the nearest exit, I could barely remember who I spoke to.

There is such a thing as overthinking what needs to be cut; after someone points out their opinion about some aspect of writing

You have to include POV, context and leave in what belongs there; you don't remove something only because someone told you to.

You need to weigh what you mean to convey.
 

HareBrain

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I find shifting focus to other parts of the body to be helpful in breaking up the repetition. For example, you could talk about them shifting their weight or edging back or any number of physical responses, as body language is a huge part of how we communicate our emotions.

A further thing I found helpful was oddly enough a guide for drawing or sculpting facial expressions.
I think all that stuff is excellent for the POV character observing others, so the reader can gauge their mood. The face chart is fascinating, but although we can mostly read a picture of a face instinctively, I'm not sure how reliably we would interpret a written description of the face so as to tell its precise emotion.
 

tinkerdan

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It's more likely that the mentor here had something like this in mind.

"I never went into a restricted area," she lied.

Changing it to this.
"I never went into a restricted area." She stepped away, shaking her head and diverting her gaze, while sneaking a glance at him: looking for signs of disbelief.

I used the emotion thesaurus and had to extrapolate from a number of the examples because there is nothing for liars or disingenuous.

I deliberately used the outward physical signs to show that it is not just internal.

And I overworked it. The point is that you can use these, however it should be sparingly, and you take a chance that you might not get across the lie unless the reader saw previously that she had been in a restricted area or you add 'she lied' somewhere in all of that.
I suppose you could add insult to injury by another line

She forced herself to unclench her hands as she slowly hid them behind her.
 

tinkerdan

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Here is an example from the thesaurus that I think is better than my explanation
Here is the tell:
Mr. Paxton’s eyes were sad as he gave her the news. “I’m sorry, JoAnne, but your position with the company is no longer necessary.”

Instantly, JoAnne was angrier than she’d ever been in her life.

Ackerman, Angela; Puglisi,Becca (2012-05-08T23:58:59). The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression . JADD Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Now the Show:
JoAnne sat on the chair’s edge, spine straight as a new pencil, and stared into Mr. Paxton’s face. Sixteen years she’d given him—days she was sick, days the kids were sick—making the trip back and forth across town on that sweaty bus. Now he wouldn’t even look at her, just kept fiddling with her folder and rearranging the fancy knickknacks on his desk. Clearly, he didn’t want to give her the news, but she wasn’t about to make it easy for him.

The vinyl of her purse crackled and she lightened her grip on it. Her picture of the kids was in there and she didn’t want it creased.

Mr. Paxton cleared his throat for the hundredth time. “JoAnne…Mrs. Benson…it appears that your position with the company is no longer—”

JoAnne jerked to her feet, sending her chair flying over the tile. It hit the wall with a satisfying bang as she stormed from the office.

Ackerman, Angela; Puglisi,Becca (2012-05-08T23:58:59). The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression . JADD Publishing. Kindle Edition.
The first two paragraphs are the setup and the final line is the payoff.


These are mostly outward(external)signs of internal emotions; however the show is the internal emotions as expressed by the outward signs.

The direct use of the internal emotions brings the POV closer than the outward; however it could be redundant in that there might be an outward sign that can be used. With that in mind though, the inward might zero in closer to what the writer means to get across to the reader and it could be tell; however no one said that tell was never allowed.
 

tinkerdan

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I've been examining what's available concerning character ‘interiority’ and clichéd physical reactions.
The examples I see puzzle me because they are mostly a few lines of cliche actions followed by what they call interiority, which it turns out is just the setup or source or reason for the cliched action.
In some cases they do cliche and several if not too many lines of interiority and then end in cliche physical reaction.
Others pepper a few cliche physical reactions amid all those lines of interiority.

I think were talking about balance here.
Balancing physical reaction to the interiority; which makes sense as with all things in writing.

However if every emotional physical reaction had a list of interiority stuffed behind and around it that might get just as tiring and cliche as the next practice. In some cases the balance needed here would be to put the action reaction cliche's interiority references in an appropriate place where some backstory crept in. That way the next time the action reaction cliche appears the reader will add that list internally and you don't have to interrupt the flow of things.

In some cases the author takes a risk and puts that interiority further below and away from the inciting cliche.

However if you don't put those physical cliche's in there somewhere then you have a shopping list of reasons with no physical reaction what so ever. The reader ends up with confusion; gosh that's quite a list of things; but i've no idea if he's happy or sad and will or will not miss all of that.
 

.matthew.

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I think all that stuff is excellent for the POV character observing others, so the reader can gauge their mood. The face chart is fascinating, but although we can mostly read a picture of a face instinctively, I'm not sure how reliably we would interpret a written description of the face so as to tell its precise emotion.
Yea, that's pretty much what I ended up figuring out after a brief period of intense over-description. However, I still learnt a lot from it and do think it helped in some circumstances. Either way, like tinkerdan did really well, moving away from the everyday heart-racing palm-sweating just makes some scenes feel fresh.

From an old first draft said:
Drust settled himself into a seat with two steaming mugs set before them. After several long sips, his eyes closed, mouth forming into a peaceful smile before his lips parted with a contented sigh. When he opened his eyes, he looked more alert and his pupils seemed to border the white. Michel wondered just how much he had added for such a pronounced reaction until sipping at the warm mug caused his own lip to curl with the bitterness that marked a great deal of the shavings.
 

tinkerdan

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Here is one blogger I found helpful--even if I don't agree on everything.
It ends up being a piece meal definition that might be missing some pieces
However, it's a start.

This has more examples.

After all of this I am beginning to develop and interiority complex.

 
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