Emotions – physical reactions

Psychiatrists agree that we, as human beings, copy others fairly easily. We copy other people’s emotions or physical sensations, even though it’s all in our heads. It forms the basis for many psychological abnormalities.

However, you as a writer can use this psychological phenomenon to your advantage.

“When you understand the feelings of one of the characters in the moving picture, you are copying his tensions. You are feeling in yourself something of what he feels in the fictional situation. You are understanding the story with your own muscle tensions and with the spasm of your intestines and with your own glandular secretions. Without these reactions, the show would have no meaning.” –Psychiatrist David Fink, Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain

We can apply what happens to people in a movie to what you want your reader to feel as he/she reads.

Describe your focal character’s emotions on a physical level. Make your reader really understand what the character’s body is going through. As they read how the character’s body is reacting, your reader will feel that in his/her own body to an extent, and suddenly the reader’s emotional experience is heightened.

Compare these two examples (the second one is taken from Sushi for One?):

Lex stood rooted to the floor in shock.


Lex's heart stopped for a long, painful moment, then started again at NASCAR speed. Her hands shook and tightened as if they were clenched around a vibrating steering wheel.

Notice I never use the word “shock” in the second example. See my Story Sensei post on naming emotions for more info on that.

Let me also add as an aside—stay away from cliché phrases like “her stomach clenched” and “a shiver ran down his spine.” You’re a writer, be creative!