One of the struggles that comes with writing is when a character feels vulnerable and so tries to hide their emotions as a result. Fear of emotional pain, a lack of trust in others, instinct, or protecting one’s reputation are all reasons he or she might repress what’s going on inside them. After all, people do this in real life, and so it makes sense that our characters will too. Protecting oneself from feeling exposed is as normal as it gets.
But where does that leave writers who STILL have to show these hidden emotions to the reader (and possibly other characters in the scene)?
The answer is a “TELL”– a subtle, bodily response or micro gesture that a character has little or no control over.
No matter how hard we try, our bodies are emotional mirrors, and can give our true feelings away. We can force hands to unknot, fake nonchalance, smile when we don’t mean it and lie as needed. However, to the trained eye, TELLS will leak through: a rushed voice. An off-pitch laugh. Hands that fiddle and smooth. Self-soothing touches to comfort. Sweating.
For a story to have emotional range, our characters will naturally hide what they feel at some point, and when they do, the writer must be ready. Readers will be primed for an emotional response by the scene’s build up, and will be on the lookout for a character’s body language cues and tells.
Here is a list of possible TELLS that will convey to readers that more is going on with your Protagonist than it seems:
- A voice that breaks, drops or raises in pitch; a change in speech patterns
- Micro hesitations (delayed speech, throat clearing, slow reaction time) showing a lack of commitment
- A forced smile, laugh or verbally agreeing/disagreeing in a way that does not seem genuine
- Cancelling gestures (smiling but stepping back; saying No but reaching out, etc.)
- Hands that fiddle with items, clothing and jewelry
- Stiff posture and movements; remaining TOO still and composed
- Rushing (the flight instinct kicking in) or making excuses to leave or avoid a situation
- A lack of eye contact; purposefully ignoring someone or something
- Closed body posture (body shielding, arms crossing chest, using the hair to hide the face, etc.)
- Sweating or trembling, a tautness in the muscles or jaw line
- Smaller gestures of the emotion ‘leaking out’ (see The Emotion Thesaurus for ideas that match each emotion)
- Growing inanimate and contributing less to conversation
- Verbal responses that seem to have double meanings; sarcasm
- Attempting to intimidate others into dropping a subject
Overreacting to something said or done in jest
- Increasing one’s personal space ( withdrawing from a group, sitting alone, etc.)
- Tightness around the eyes or mouth (belying the strain of keeping emotion under wraps)
- Hiding one’s hands in some way
Sometimes a writer can let the character’s true thoughts leak out and this can help show the reader what’s really being felt. But this only works if the character happens to be the Point Of View Character. The rest of the time, it comes down to micro body language and body tells that are hard, if not impossible, to control.
Have you used any of these tells to show the reader or other characters in the scene that something is wrong? What tells do you notice most in real life as you read the body language of those around you? (These real life interactions can be gold mines for fresh body language cues to apply to your characters!)
TIP 1: For more inspiration on body language that will convey specific emotions, flip through the expanded and updated second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus.
TIP 2: Becca has a great post on Hidden Emotions as well, and how “Acting Normal” might be the go-to expressive that gets hidden emotions across to the reader, while potentially leaving other characters in the dark.
TIP 3: For more information (and a handy reference) on the best ways to show hidden emotion, check out the Deception in Dialogue Tip Sheet at One Stop for Writers.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.