I've read stuff like these:

  • she sat up. Startled.
  • His face flushed (how does that happen in real life)
  • He felt his neck muscles tense up, his temples started bulging, he started breathing more heavily as he heard his subordinate's report
  • Suddenly she felt hollow inside

You get the idea. There are a many descriptions of characters having some kind of physical indication about their reactions. This is especially true in the writing of Sydney Sheldon, Dan Brown, Dean Koontz and several popular authors.

What other ways are there to bring out character reactions, instead of adding dramatizing effects to emotions? Also, is there any way which is recommended in terms of making it more realistic?

  • 5
    "His face flushed". I'm sorry to say that this happens to me way too often. If I get called out in public about a mistake, I feel this immense heat rise up my neck, my cheeks, all the way until my entire head seems to be about to burst. It's physically noticeable, as a 'kind soul' will immeditealy tell me there's no need to get red... or they'll just make fun of my 'tomato cheeks'. Yeah. I get that red. Jul 13, 2018 at 14:38
  • Honestly, sometimes it bugs me that a character behaves unrealistically (I particularly object to the idea of someone peeing themselves just because they are afraid, I've met a lot of people who were in really terrifying situations, myself included, but never have I heard someone say that they actually wet themselves for terror) but I understand when I read that in the absence of actual visual and auditory clues we sometimes have to use conventions in order to convey reactions. Just try to avoid the more ridiculous excesses :) Jul 13, 2018 at 15:40
  • @SaraCosta I too feel heat rise up my neck and my cheeks. My skin is too dark for anyone to see it. I too struggle for alternative descriptions for dark-skinned characters. Jul 14, 2018 at 9:42
  • @SaraCosta I meant that as an example. Sure there can be people who would have that physical reaction. Just the way a person would throw his hands up in the air on hearing some bad news. However, I'm inclined to believe that these things happen to a small subset of people as opposed to a large one. I've frequently come across character reactions in stories that I just can't relate to. Here's another example - "Suddenly she was tired". Nope. The tension in the body exists way before the actual bad news because part of you has been wondering about it and afraid that it will happen.
    – Mugen
    Jul 16, 2018 at 5:41
  • One thing I've had to remind myself is that it changes depending on POV. A third person observer might say "his face turned red," but the first person narrator would say "my face got hot" (because he can't see the color). Jul 16, 2018 at 16:53

3 Answers 3


Readers Live Vicariously

It is always important to remember that connecting with your reader is the most important thing. To do that best, the reader should feel as if she is experiencing the story as one of the characters. Generally for the highest impact this means the action happens to the viewpoint character.

Action Happens To A Viewpoint Character

That means to have the largest impact on your reader you will have things happen to your viewpoint character and then the reader will feel as if those things have happened to her.

First, Think As A Screenplay Writer

Remember, when you watch a movie you do not know anything about the way the character feels except for the way you see him react to outward events or what he says to other characters. However, he may be saying things to other characters that aren't true. In a movie we cannot know what the character is actually thinking (except in odd cases where there is narration).

How Might An Actor Portray A Feeling?

That means you want to consider how an actor might portray a feeling. That is probably the key to getting to better writing.
You'll need to imagine how you might see the characters actually reacting to some stimuli. Once you "see" it, write it down in exact detail.

A Very Simplistic Example

Let's try this with a character who is searching for hidden gold in the desert.

Ralph took a deep breath and stuck his hand into the hole at the base of the cactus. His eyes darted left and then back right as he felt around inside the cactus. Nothing. But this was where the old man had said it would be. Ralph shook his head in an attempt to brush the sweat out of his eyes. Maybe further inside. He pushed with his legs and now his entire arm was inside the cactus. Stabbing pain pierced his index finger and he jerked his hand out of the cactus and pulled it toward his body and screamed. He looked down at his hand and a wave of nausea rippled through him. Must stay conscious. Have to get pack.

Show As Much As Possible, Then Allow For Reflection

Show as much as you can as physical actions. Then, show the character reacting to those actions and it'll help create the strong feelings in your reader because they'll experience the physicality of your writing along with the emotion, because it'll feel much more realistic and immediate as if it is happening to the reader herself.

  • 1
    This is a good answer. I particularly experienced a very visceral reaction to "Stabbing pain pierced his index finger", perhaps because I had been anticipating the stab when Ralph stuck his hand into a cactus. If you can vividly show readers what your character is perceiving, you won't need to work at portraying the characters feelings as much as his reactions. Jul 13, 2018 at 15:44
  • 2
    Great Answer. I attempted to answer this question a few hours ago but discovered that I didn't have a great answer. You do have one here, however your parallel to movies is flawed. Movies incorporate a variety of tools (such as controlling what the viewer sees) which writers do not have access to. A closer parallel is writing screen plays for stage performance. In that medium, character reactions have to be overstated (and to the OP's point, slightly unrealistic) so that the audience doesn't miss seeing them. Writing with a strong "show" discipline suffers from that same challenge. Jul 13, 2018 at 16:54
  • @HenryTaylor Your points are good, but I was attempting to say "start with the screenplay and strong showing" but then add more layers of internalization in places where they strengthen the text and story. Also, check out my answer related to what you are saying writing.stackexchange.com/questions/33996/screenplay-vs-novel/… with agreement to the differences between screenplay => Stage play => Novel Great discussion.
    – raddevus
    Jul 13, 2018 at 17:52
  • @HenryTaylor "writing screen plays for stage performance. In that medium, character reactions have to be overstated (and to the OP's point, slightly unrealistic) so that the audience doesn't miss seeing them." I fully agree with this. There has to be a better way of writing that doesn't involve exaggerated character reactions.
    – Mugen
    Jul 16, 2018 at 5:45
  • @raddevus It's the character reactions like these that confuse me - "took a deep breath", "eyes darted left and right", "shook head to brush the sweat" etc. This is exactly what I was talking about. Although the reactions communicate the emotion, at the same time, they don't feel realistic. If I were doing the same thing, I would pause, take a moment before undertaking the painful process, then start. Put my hands inside, nervously wriggle my fingers everywhere inside the cactus hoping not to get stabbed, after a while of searching, push inside in a frustrated manner and get stabbed..(contd)
    – Mugen
    Jul 16, 2018 at 5:49

Skip the physical actions you find unrealistic (although most of them are metaphorical, not 'unrealistic'). Tears welling in eyes, trembling, etc are realistic enough.

Also, go inside; physical symptoms are not all you can show:

He felt his neck muscles tense up, his temples started bulging, he started breathing more heavily as he heard his subordinate's report.


As Richard listened to his lieutenant's report he felt a building rage, the urge to strike somebody down, break things, to roar to stop this idiocy. He was sure these feelings showed on him, but internally he struggled to repress any actual movement at all. Not only would it be unprofessional, but it was too late, the deeds were done. Now he needed a response, something besides killing everyone. When his lieutenant finished, Richard took a long moment to calm himself, eyes closed. He finally looked up to meet the lieutenant's eyes.
"Heard and understood. Give me fifteen minutes, and return for orders. Dismissed."
The lieutenant nodded once and turned to leave. A good man. A smart man.


Lamentably, a great many authors today are mentally acting out scenes in their heads because they are subconsciously directing a movie rather than writing a novel.

Both the screen and the page are limited media. They do some things well and some things badly. Showing facial expressions and body language generally is something the screen does well and the page does badly. Thus a movie script will often put more of the responsibility for expressing emotion onto the actors rather than on the dialogue. In fact, movie dialogue is often incredibly trite because it is meant almost as a blank canvas for the actor to use to paint in the emotions they want to portray.

The page, on the other hand, does not give much scope for acting. You can certainly mention an action or a frown now and then, but there cannot be any of the subtlety of expression or movement that an actor can bring to a scene. Only the crudest movements can be described. The novelist, therefore, puts more of the emotion into the dialogue than you would find in real life. People give speeches, they use elevated language, they use more varied vocabulary and extended metaphors and similes that people would rarely use in real speech.

This is how you express emotion in prose, therefore: not in actions but in words. And, also, not in the moment but in the setup. The real trick to creating powerful emotion in a story is not how you write individual scenes but in how you set up the scene beforehand so that the reader has the desired emotional reaction just from hearing that some dreaded or hoped-for event has happened.

In short, use the techniques appropriate to the media you are working in.

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