So all of this talk about sex this week got me thinking about the physical aspect of love and how to convey that on the page. We’ve all heard the mantra, “Show, don’t tell,” but we also know that telling is easier. However, it’s not as engaging for the reader, plus, as I implied, showing is hard. It takes extra brain work (and chocolate to fuel that brain work) to come up with a myriad of physical manifestations of love.
I have to admit that right now, I’m pretty bland when it comes to describing a person’s physical reaction to someone who turns them on. I mean, how many times can their pulse race, their heart beat faster, or adrenaline course through their veins? Remember, too, I’m writing a Regency historical, so I can’t even mention “adrenaline,” because it didn’t exist back then!
Sometimes, a good place to mine emotions is from within ourselves. For example, I can easily whip up a list of things I thought about my husband when I first met him:
- His eyes are beautiful.
- I love his smile. It lights up his face.
- What a polite gentleman.
- Look! He holds a chair for a lady!
- He’s tall…thank goodness.
- God, he’s lovely!
- Should I tell him he has food in his teeth? Nah…
But those are just emotions…thoughts. As with “telling,” they’re easy. “Showing” is harder. I have to sit back and really think about the physical sensations I had when we first met (Warning: this delves into the TMI zone — after all, we writers should lay ourselves bare on the page, right? — so skip ahead if you’d like. I won’t be offended):
- My armpits are wet and tingly.
- Jeez, my palms are sweaty.
- The adrenaline is making my hands shake.
- God, I’m so nervous, I have to shit.
- Hoo-hah status: warm, wet, swollen, sparkling.
- I feel like there’s bees or butterflies flying around in my stomach.
- I can’t breathe. Only small, shallow breaths.
- What is that pang in my chest?
(Can you see why he’s my husband? haha! Er…ahem.) At this stage in my writing, my focus is on finishing the first draft, so I jot down the same physical reactions over and over again. However, when I go back in revision, I’ll have to layer on different physical sensations. To help me, I picked up a book called “The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s just like a thesaurus, only instead of listing the different words for a feeling (such as love, anger, or fear), it lists physical manifestations of that feeling. Anger may be shown by flaring nostrils, sweating, or sweeping arm gestures. Fear may be shown by clammy hands, trembling lips and chin, or a shrill voice.
I figure if I start reading the book now, one emotion every couple of days, by the time I’m ready for revision, I’ll have absorbed some of the different ways emotions can be felt. I’ll be ready to conjure up different ways to show, “Man, he turns her on!” or “Dammit, she’s pissed!” without actually saying it. Until then, my characters’ pulses will just have to race.
Do you have any “go to” phrases that you use in first drafts for describing a physical reaction to an emotion?