In my third book of the “Hunted Series,” Hunted Dreams, my dreaming main character suddenly finds herself at a laden dinner table. She grabs a fork and digs in. With each bite, she experiences an explosion of feeling, each one different than the one before: terror, disgust, and rage, to name a few.
This scene was one of the hardest ones I’ve ever written. I forced myself to describe in intense detail every sensation of each emotion: the taste and color of each feeling, the bodily sensations, the resulting thoughts and intentions. Doing so, I discovered something rather profound: describing feelings is tough!
You can imagine my delight when I stumbled across this study. It uses self-reports to determine where people physically experience feelings. Looking at the picture, I’m flabbergasted by how our bodies literally feel more or less, depending on our current emotional state. For example, I find fascinating how many feelings find a home in the chest. Whether this is inherent in humans or because we Westerners discuss the heart as the seat of emotions, feelings tend to literally get us right here.
Even more interesting for me is the feeliness (totally a word, or at least it should be) of hands and feet. I can imagine hands clenching when someone is angry, but happiness and love make our feet tingle? What, so we can get ready to run into the waiting arms of our suitor? Whatever the reason, I would never, ever have thought to include feet in my descriptions of happiness.
The cardinal rule of writing is Show Rather than Tell©. This Finnish study, and its resulting illustration, provide us a literal map of feelings. It’s color-coded emotions, folks. So, instead of saying “He’s sad,” we can talk about the pressure in the chest, the cold weightiness of limbs, the tightening of the throat.
What a delicious challenge and responsibility we have to describe holistically — emotionally, physically, and intellectually – our characters’ emotional terrain.