A screenshot of the YouTube app to illustrate the trick I use to teach my students how to show emotions in their writing.

Learn to Show Emotions with 1 Simple Trick

I recently watched the first three seasons of The Morning Show on Apple TV+. If you’re not a subscriber, the show offers a fictionalized behind-the-scenes look at the television programs America wakes up to.

The dialogue is smart and funny, and the acting is top-notch. Plus, the show delivers some very poignant commentaries on the #MeToo movement and how the patriarchy impacts women in power.

But what I like most about the show are the nonverbal exchanges between characters, and between certain characters and the camera.

While I love the entire cast, Corey Ellison, the sleazy but at times soft-hearted executive who becomes president of The Morning Show’s parent company, UBA, is my favorite. Billy Crudup, the actor who plays Corey, masterfully uses gestures, body language, and facial expressions to communicate emotions that often contradict his lines. 

Want to see what I’m talking about? Check out examples one and two (skip to minute 1:25 for this one).

That brings me to the final tip I’d like to share on writing about emotions.

So far, we’ve explored the internal mining and reframing writers need to do to get in touch with their feelings. But cultivating emotional intelligence will only get you so far.

You need to know how to show your emotions on the page. To do that, you must discover the diverse ways emotions look, sound, and feel when characters exhibit them.

There’s a super easy way to do this. I call it the YouTube trick.

Actors have some of the most malleable faces out there. That’s because their entire job is to physically communicate emotions we’d have no other way of knowing. 

Watching these professionals emote on screen can give you fresh ways to show what’s happening inside your characters. As you play and replay these moments, look for the ticks that signal a coming rant, like Corey’s lip twitch at the beginning of example one, or the expression at the end of example two, that communicates an anguish so deep it can’t be spoken.

Here’s the three-part YouTube trick process I use to teach my students how to show emotions.

Step one: Pick an emotion your character feels that is difficult for you to express on the page. While you can start with simple emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, or anger, see if you can get more nuanced. For example, is that happiness actually contentment or joy? Is your angry character disgruntled, rageful, or irritated? 

Step two: Look up the physiological symptoms for each feeling state. The more you understand about what happens inside someone, the better you’ll be able to look for its outward expression. 

Step Three: Go to YouTube and type in movie clip + the emotion you’re looking for. Example: movie clip rage or movie clip joy. For certain ones, like joy, that happen to show up in movie titles, you might have to do a little digging. But once you’ve found a few clips, watch them several times.

As you do, pay attention to the following:

  • What parts of the body does the actor use to express this emotion? Start with the obvious ones, like the eyes or mouth, then look at other parts of the body. What’s happening to their neck or shoulders? How about their hands or feet?
  • How does this compare to the ways your character expresses emotions? If what you see doesn’t feel true to your character, does it spark some ways of emoting that do?
  • Does the character’s body language line up with their dialogue? Studying these discrepancies will teach you about the power of subtext.

But before you get started, let me offer a word of warning. If you find certain emotions triggering, go slowly, and make sure you’re in an emotionally centered place before watching video clips associated with these emotions—especially these triggers are associated with depictions of fear or anger. If you run across something that upsets you, stop watching.

To go even deeper into your character’s emotional landscape, watch out for links in future newsletters for The Psychology of Character Development, a webinar I’ll be teaching for Jane Friedman in June.

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