Engaging Emotion: Capturing How Emotions Feel

Following on from the last post, where we explored how important emotion is in story, now we’re going to delve into how we can do that, and there are several ways. The first articulates the physiological response that emotions always involve.

We’ve all experienced emotions directly in our body. On the way to meet our hot new relationship prospect, we can barely keep still as our hearts pound with excitement; while the prospect of an important job interview may tighten our muscles and make our hands sweat with anxiety. This link between emotions and bodily states is also apparent in the way we speak of emotions; the nervous bride-to-be may suddenly have ‘cold feet’, a breakup can leave us ‘heartbroken’, and our favorite song can send ‘a shiver down our spine’. None of this is surprising considering numerous studies, and the discussion we just had, establishing that emotion systems prepare us to meet challenges in our environment by adjusting the activation of multiple body systems; including the cardiovascular, skeletomuscular, hormone, and nervous systems.

The physiological component of emotions is how they feel in the body. These internal sensations often include rapid heart-rate, stomach distress, sweating, hot or cold flushes, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle tension, or increased energy. Interestingly, many emotions (with the exception of sadness) have considerable physiological overlap.

A 2013 Finnish study[1] asked 700 participants to color body regions on a human silhouette as they were presented with emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. What they found was that different emotions were consistently associated with separate bodily sensation maps. I predict the image will do most of the talking for me, so check it out (red represents warmer regions, blue cooler):

Emotions in the body

The results revealed distinct body areas are associated with both basic emotions; anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise, and complex emotions. The study raised a host of interesting points that are relevant to writers:

  • Most basic emotions were associated with sensations of increased activity in the upper chest area, most likely corresponding to the physiological changes in breathing and heart rate.
  • Similarly, sensations in the head area were shared across all emotions, reflecting physiological changes in the facial area (i.e., facial muscle activation, skin temperature, the flow of tears). It seems faces are where our emotions really show.
  • Sensations in the upper limbs were most prominent in active-type emotions, anger and happiness, whereas sensations of decreased limb activity were a defining feature of sadness.
  • Sensations in the digestive system and around the throat region were mainly found in disgust (this one certainly seems logical…).
  • In contrast with all of the other emotions, happiness was associated with enhanced sensations all over the body (I love this finding — you can have your characters showing emotion with their whole body!).
  • The more complex emotions showed a much smaller degree of bodily sensations and were more likely to overlap (also kinda logical…).

Some of these points, such as the importance of facial expressions and the difference of basic and complex emotions, we will visit later. For now, we want to focus on the physiological component this image captures.

Many of the physical reactions you experience during an emotion, such as sweating palms, racing heartbeat, or rapid breathing are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, a branch of the autonomic nervous system. Although there’s no need to remember these physiological terms, what writers need to know is that the autonomic nervous system controls involuntary body responses, such as blood flow and digestion—meaning some emotional responses (particularly to real or perceived threat) are automatic and rapid.

If an emotion is strong or sudden (or both), then capturing the physical reactions that make up emotions is going to lend your story authenticity. What you describe will be realistic. Readers will relate. Even better, readers will experience it right alongside the character thanks to those mirror neurons).

Physiological and visceral components of emotion can include any of the following:

  • Heart/Pulse
  • Stomach/Nausea
  • Weak muscles
  • Tight throat/Dry mouth
  • Light-headed
  • Focused vision
  • Sweating
  • Blood rushing to the face or neck

Let’s see how some talented authors tap into this part of emotion. Check out how Margaret Carroll captures emotion in her romantic suspense, Riptide:

The contents of Christina’s gut heated up and turned to hot, molten liquid. The noises on the checkout line faded away, replaced by a whooshing sound in her ears.

Or this:

Something cold and small snaked its way up from the pit of Christina’s stomach, leaving a trail of ice in its wake. Like a Roto-Rooter worming through her veins, sucking up all the blood.

Clever authors capture that these feelings happen tous and deserve some time on the page. Have a look how Dryanda Jones does it in her best-selling urban fantasy, Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet:

Nausea punched into my stomach and pushed hard, but I was getting used to the massive adrenaline dumps. I tensed and fought the surge of bile, forcing it down and holding it there.

And later:

       The colossal adrenaline dump that had overloaded my system now needed a place to go. With every ounce of strength I had, I pushed him off, rushed to the wall, and emptied the contents of my stomach onto the concrete foundation.

But it’s not just the powerful, visceral emotions that impact us. Some emotions have less bang, but still affect our body. Check out how Paula Hawkins captures the physical response of shame in The Girl on the Train:

“Detective Sergeant Riley told me,” he says. “She was asking me about you. Whether I was in a relationship with you.” He laughs. “A relationship with you! Jesus. I asked her, have you seen what my wife looked like? Standards haven’t fallen that fast.” My face is hot, there is cold sweat under my armpits and at the base of my spine.

Liane Moriarty slips in an emotional reaction in her best-selling Three Wishes. In this particular excerpt, one of the main characters, Cat, is talking to her husband about the woman he had an affair with. Her husband is finally revealing his true feelings.

“I do love you. I just think that maybe I’m not in love with you any more.”

       “And you think you’re in love with her.”


       It felt as if he’d thrown a bucket of icy cold water at her. She blinked and tried to catch her breath.

Even the simple but beautiful story of The Little Prince captures our physical response to emotions. In the final scenes of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s story, the Little Prince is saying goodbye:

“Here it is. Let me go on by myself.”   

He sat down, because he was afraid. Then he said, again:

       “You know—my flower…I am responsible for her. And she is so weak! She is so naive! She has four thorns, of no use at all, to protect herself against all the world…”

       I too sat down, because I was not able to stand up any longer.

       “There now—that is all…”

       He still hesitated a little; then he got up. He took one step. I could not move.

With just a few words, the reader gets a sense of how much grief has affected the narrator—it has robbed him of the ability to move. In fact, in the page leading up to this excerpt, the Little Prince is explaining to the narrator why he has to leave. Each time, in fact four times, the narrator’s response is “I said nothing.”Not only can he not move, he can’t speak. Simple, powerful, and purely physical.

Best-selling authors know this, and weave how our emotions feel into their character’s experience.

Until then, how do you think emotion is captured on a page? How do you elicit it in your reader? Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Happy writing,


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  1. You make some really good points. I find writing these emotional scenes in my writing to be challenging, and I often labor over them to get it just right. The risk is melodrama if the descriptions are too detailed or even too witty. As a reader I hate it when a character carries on about the physical reactions happening at that moment because people (characters) don’t really think or analyze in heated moments to compare their physical changes to Roto-Rooter sucking up blood, as you cite with Christina above. That to me is overdone. As a reader, I roll my eyes because the writing becomes self-conscious. But your Little Prince example is spot on. Subtle and subtext is always more powerful. Your color body chart is fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paula – interesting points! There’s certainly variety in the personal preferences of readers (I love the clever metaphors just as much as the simple but poignant writing). As a writer, it’s about making the conscious choice of what you’re including and why and how that impacts the reader 😊


  2. I love when something we authors use intuitively can be explained with science. I’m a firm believer in learning, even for the talented storyteller. As a fantasy writer, I like to say that no writer/reader knows better than us that words have power. And I do believe that learning the words and what they mean gives us a kind of understanding that really can make the difference.

    For showing the psichological side of emontions, years and years ago I used to rely heavily on internat dialogue and brooding. Then on an online workshop I met and author who, as an experiemnt, decided to ban all internatl thoughts from his story, so forcing himself to show what the characters felt, since they wouldn’t tell the reader.
    It was such an eye-opener for me. Before, I had thought that was impossible, that readers would be left out. Not so. I enjoyed that experiment so much that I started doing the same thing.
    I do use internal dialogue and explenation still, but it has enormously decreased in favour of showing physical reactions. It seems to work 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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