Picture It, Portray It, Pen It

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. Do you ever struggle with describing a character’s emotions or how they would react in a particular situation? I do. Even though I have several reference books, at times I feel as if I keep repeating the same thing—an arched brow for surprise, a pricking sensation for fear, slamming door when they’re angry, etc.

I’m in the middle of editing a manuscript and have given a lot of thought to how to better describe character reactions. I call my little formula, Picture It, Portray It, Pen It.

Every novel, every chapter, every scene starts with an idea. You may spend weeks brainstorming. Some writers use a journal or a notebook to jot down ideas. Others use a computer program. This is where planners begin their outline. It’s also the time to conduct any necessary research. Finally, it’s time to write.

Picture It

Imagine an artist beginning with a blank canvas. A new writing project is much the same. No matter what writing software you use, the first thing you see is a blank screen. Like the artist, this is the time to fill in the basics.

If you are an edit as you go writer, the most important thing is getting those ideas from your head (or notes) into your first draft. I can’t tell you how many times I start to write, then stop to edit a sentence and forget what I planned to say in the next one. (No comments on that last part being age-related.)

Portray It

The first draft is written. Whether you wait to edit the entire book or do it a scene or chapter at a time, you’ll likely find a lot of telling and not showing.

I write dialogue-heavy. While it’s is a good way to move the story forward, but sometimes I find my scene seems bland or my characters one-dimensional. Fortunately for me, I have some fantastic critique partners that not only point out my errors but they also challenge me to move to new depths.

And sometimes what I think is one of my best scenes is actually boring. I haven’t added enough details to set the scene or showed enough emotion with a character or characters. I turn to reference books but even then, I feel like my writing is “meh.”

How do we make the scene come alive? One way I’ve used is to portray the scene. That’s right. Act it out. Pretend you’re on the set of a movie. Put yourself inside the character’s head.

How would you react to learning your best friend betrayed you? What if you sensed someone was stalking you?

Warning. You might want to do this when no one else is around or risk being thought of as crazy.

You can also draw on real-life experiences. Think of the time when you walked across the stage to receive your diploma. Remember when you got your first car. What thoughts were going through your head during a job interview or the first day on a new job?

A third way is to resort to actual movies or television shows. Recently, I needed to describe a character’s emotions when she learned her husband had been murdered. I thought of the award-winning film In the Heat of the Night where Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger informed Lee Grant’s character of such an event. Grant’s portrayal was realistic—shock, disbelief, maybe a little denial. I drew from that scene.

Be sure not to plagiarize any words or write the scene verbatim. Use it only for reference.

Pen It

Now it’s time to write the edits. Below is an example from my own work.

I went from something like this (all telling):

Ruth remained silent—too much in shock to cry or show any emotion.

To this (showing):

She sank into a chair, her hands shaking, and her stomach in knots. A million scenarios raced through her mind, searching to find an explanation for Juan’s demeanor and the presence of a chaplain.

Other than the obvious.

Juan started to speak. “I’m sorry—”

“No. Don’t say it. Not now.” Ruth stood, then began to pace the floor, her hands clenched. When she reached the fireplace, she rested her head against the mantle.

It goes without saying that showing takes more words than telling. But in the end, you’ll have a much stronger and captivating story. What techniques have you used to capture emotion in a scene? Please share in the comments.

63 thoughts on “Picture It, Portray It, Pen It

  1. Pingback: Capturing Emotions by Using Personal Experiences | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: show, don’t tell | Story Empire

  3. It is cool to have a friend who is an actor (often seen in BBC period dramas) who can invite friends (well up until last year) and so act the scene. Makes it so easy to write. More importantly, just imagining each circumstance through each characters eyes. Lol- I suspect that I will become a multiple personality schizophrenic in a few years. In a few years you say?
    “I suspect so.
    “Do you think that you have already reached that stage?
    “After all the room is empty, there is just me and you, and I am you.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What an excellent post, Joan. The three p’s are spot on! I like the idea of acting out the scene. It’s a great way to put yourself in the middle of the action and emotions. And you are so right. Showing almost always requires more words than telling, but so much more engaging and powerful! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Love your 3 P’s, Joan! Excellent advice. When I wrote the prologue of CLEAVED, I had no life experience to draw from. So, I trapped myself in an oil drum (empty & clean) to experience Sage’s terror. The scene remains one of my all-time favorite openers. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is a wonderful post, Joan. I like your idea of picture it, portray it, and pen it. I could relate to the outline of the painting, even though I’ve watched one artist painted a panoramic view from his head. I guess there are also writers with the sketches and details in their heads when they write. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I start with a very basic outline. I know my protagnoist, antagonist and how I want the book to end. Getting there is another matter. Characters often take me in different directions. I’m all for whatever works for the individual writer. Glad you enjoyed the post, Miriam.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting way to plan, Yvette. I’m pretty much a panster, although I do a brief outline. As I said in the post, I tend to write dialogue-heavy so my work requires lots of editing.

      Thanks for stopping by today.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. An excellent post on how to delve into a character’s mindset, Joan. I often act the scene out with the characters in my head, and normally find myself sinking into what they’re feeling. It’s a great way to capture the words that need to make it into the story. I love your Picture It, Portray It, Pen It strategy!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do more acting out in my head but there are times when I go through “the motions.” I had used this technique before and had gotten away from it. I needed something to pep up my WIP so this was perfect timing for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post, Joan 🙂 I like the idea of picture it, portray it, and pen it. I get stuck on the same descriptions too . Acting it out does help, luckily no one has caught me doing that yet. My biggest thing to do in final edits is add some movement in the conversations. I like your example it really brought the passage to life. Bringing in as many of our senses sure wake it up. I’m forever googling how things sound or smell.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Great post, Joan. I like the idea of watching characters on television to get ideas for a variety of physical reactions to emotion. I tend to have my “go-to” menu too and it takes a lot of work to change them up. Great example of showing versus telling!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Great post. I struggle with coming up with new ways to show emotion. I use a lot of raised eyebrows and have to go back and tinker with them:) I play the scenes in my head but never thought about acting them out. I’ll close the door to my office when I give that a try:)

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Pingback: #ReblogAlert – #StoryEmpire – Joan Hall: Picture It, Portray It, Pen It | The Write Stuff

  12. I love this post, Joan. Extremely helpful to me as a pretty new writer. I’ll be referring to it often, I know, and I can’t wait to share it on TWS. I “hear” the dialogue from my characters as I write, because they are so real to me. (I usually say they dictate what they want me to type.) So dialogue is something that’s super important to me in my stories, and anything that helps me do it better or use it in more effective ways (to show, rather than tell as you demonstrate) is a big help! Thanks so much for this one! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • My characters definitely direct my story. Some times they take it in a different direction than I intended. 😊

      Because I write dialogue heavy, I often forget to add the emotional aspect. So glad you found this useful and thanks for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Great advice, Joan. Being dialog-heavy myself, I have struggled with well-rounded scenes. I like your approach and think I will try a little acting. I hope I don’t scare Lucy and Twiggy. In all seriousness, your example was very informative.

    Liked by 2 people

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  16. My family think I’m mad anyway, so acting out a scene wouldn’t make much difference. 😄 However, it sounds like a good idea.
    But I often find my characters are acting it out for me, in my head. In my current wip, I see my antagonist pacing the floor in frustration. I see my protagonist tearing her hair and pounding her head when her youngest child has died in horrific circumstances. I hear her wails and self-blame.
    In determination, I see her face with tight lips and narrowed eyes.
    Looking at scenes in films is a brilliant idea, too.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Laughing at the comment about your family. I also have characters playing the scene in my mind. Sometimes it helps just to close my eyes and envision it. Thanks for stopping by today!


    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who does this. Sometimes the scene plays out in my head. Other times, I have actually put myself in that character’s shoes and talked it out. 🙂


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