Psychology tells us there are primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are the instinctual, gut-reaction emotions we have no control over. Secondary emotions are caused by or are reactions to primary emotions. Anger is a secondary emotion. You don’t immediately jump to anger, something’s caused you to be angry. Maybe you were frustrated, tired, jealous, or resentful – maybe you were all of those.
The way to show and not tell these emotions in deep point of view is to portray the primary emotions as they happen, layer one upon the other, and let the secondary emotion be what’s seen externally – often. This way you don’t have to TELL readers your character is happy or sad or angry or envious. You SHOW them what those emotions look like, and then when your character blows up the reader doesn’t have to guess why.
That’s a super simplified version.
What Does Emotional Layering Look Like?
I’ve taken a sample from my current WIP to show this. I’d love to pull sections from bestsellers, and I might at another time, but I’m not sure of the copyright legality of it so for now you’re stuck with my writing.
In this scene, Felora is the point of view character. I’ll add my thoughts on the body language, emotions, and subtext in parenthesis so you can see this technique.
Chin up, she walked straight to Barric where he sat in the head councilman’s chair, leaned in and pressed a kiss to her husband’s lips. (she’s adopting an authoritative/in-command body language here) He hesitated only a moment before kissing her back. (Subtext – this is his permission to stay) She had missed him leaving this morning. “I heard my father had returned.”
A fleeting smile flashed across his lips. He gave a curt nod and gestured to the space next to him. (Explicit permission everyone else could see to stay) She put a hand on his shoulder (a claiming gesture, a power gesture) and glared at the other elders, daring them to complain that a woman stood among them.
Pause the scene here. What have you learned about Felora so far? Here’s what I’m hoping you’ve gleaned. She’s confident and defiant. She’s not afraid to be the only girl in the old boy’s club. She’s not a submissive meek wife and her husband is OK with that. But I haven’t TOLD you any of that, you’ve had to glean that from her body language and how she interprets what’s going on around her. Let’s keep going.
“I’m concerned that we’ve received no word from your father or mine about how the battle went.” Barric put a hand over hers. (A subtle power struggle – he’s still the leader in the room) “If they’ve been ransomed, we’ll get them back.”
The soldiers entered the hall and set a wood box at Barric’s feet. The men stared at the floor, none spoke. Felora couldn’t help staring at the box too. (this isn’t normal – the box isn’t what anyone is expecting and the men bearing it feel shame)
Barric sat straighter. (fear/suspicion kicks in) “So open it.”
One soldier bent and pulled the pin securing the lid, lifted the top and stepped back.
Her father’s lifeless eyes stared up at the ceiling, his mouth gaped as if he’d died mid-scream. Like she’d been punched in the gut, she coughed and sputtered. (shock) Her hand covered her mouth and she dropped to her knees. (grief, disbelief) Crawling the short distance, she reached for the box and drew it closer. There was no mistaking Wyne’s features. Her father was dead. Her fingers trembled and tears blurred her vision. (fear – fight, flight or freeze instinct kicks in) She shut the box. How had this happened? She turned towards Barric but no words formed.
Pause the scene here. You can see the various primary emotions I’m hoping come across to readers. You see them pile up one upon another. There’s an intentional lack of internal dialogue, because right now all she can do is feel. She can’t make sense of anything. There’s a number of primary emotions all clamoring to be her priority and her brain shuts down. Each primary emotion could be a sentence or a sentence fragment. Let them blend together and add to the mental confusion.
Barric pulled her to her feet. She couldn’t stop the tears. (now I switch out of deep point of view briefly – she’s disassociating from the pain and shock and grief) A moaning sound filled the hall. The deep guttural bawl rattled her—snaked down her spine and raised the hair on her arms. Barric pulled her against his chest and the sound became muffled. The foreign voice was hers.
She pressed a hand to her belly, sucked in one breath and then another. (back in deep pov – seeks control of the situation and begins with controlling herself) She was a warrior. She knew how to take a hit and get back up again. That’s what her father had taught her. (military training enables her to squelch enough emotions to make a decision – thinking is impaired) She pushed away from Barric and swiped at her wet cheeks with an open palm. (this is an I-don’t-care-who-sees-my-grief gesture as well as a get-it-together-soldier gesture)
(now she’s angry – but her anger is misdirected – she can’t get to the actual person responsible so she turns on the messengers) “Where’s the rest of him? How can I bury him like that? Like a traitor?” (indignation) She reached to touch the box and then recoiled. It wasn’t her father any longer. (revulsion)
Among the bedraggled soldiers who had come in she recognized Dell, her father’s best friend. His clothes were filthy and ragged. Blood seeped through the bandages around his hand and upper arm. His shoulders seemed to carry the whole city. (this observation of his physical state is an acknowledgement that he didn’t abandon her father – he stayed and fought when it would’ve been easier to run – they all had – respect)
Pause here. The next few lines incorporate the use of subtext. This is super important in deep point of view, for readers and your point of view character to read between the lines. You can read more about subtext here and here.
Dell went down on one knee in front of Barric’s chair. His voice wavered. “There were too many to bury and too few left to dig graves. We searched the dead for those we knew to bring something back for their kin.” He sucked in a breath like he needed to bolster his voice and just nodded his chin at the box. “Took his head down from a pike.”
Her father was tortured? (subtext – as a soldier she understands what he’s not saying, what he’s maybe trying to save her from) She covered her mouth and swallowed the bile that erupted in her throat. (revulsion, grief again) Fresh tears welled up again. (fight, flight or freeze)
Furrows stretched across Barric’s brow (fear) and he cleared his throat (searching for control). “We’ve had no word. Tell us what happened.”
“They knew we were comin. Hemmed us in front and back.” Dell reached into a pouch on his belt and held out the Council signet ring—Barric’s father’s ring. “Your father gave me that. Wanted me to relay that if you have a son would you name the child after him?” (subtext again – letting Felora’s observations that Dell remained on the battlefield to the end be confirmed. She’s a reliable narrator)
Barric’s face reddened and he closed his fist around the ring. (grief, sadness)
Dell turned to her and pulled a seax from his belt. “Your father would have wanted you to have this.”
She held her father’s blade across her palms. She couldn’t make sense of any of it. “He was strong. He would not have been felled easily…” She looked up and met Dell’s gaze. “How?”
“How did this happen?” Barric’s voice cracked. He pointed at the box. “What aren’t you saying?” His voice echoed off the uncaring walls of the whitewashed hall. (personification – uncaring walls – still Felora’s perspective filtering the setting for readers)
Dell swiped a wrist across his brow. (shows vulnerability, uncertainty, exhaustion) “Some of our men fled, but most—” He sucked in a breath. (determination, courage) “Most of our men fell where they stood. Wyne ordered me to get Garvin out and we almost made it. Took three arrows to fell him. I buried his body to protect it from scavengers. Marked it so you could bring him back here for a proper burial.” He nodded towards the door that led to the crypt caves beneath the hall. (subtext, to help readers understand traditions – he feels responsible, guilty even – but there’s no shame)
Barric turned away. (hiding vulernability)
“How did my father fall?” Dell had been as much a father to her as Wyne, he would tell her the truth. (respect, shows a need for justice)
Dell finally met her gaze and stood. (now he’s back to a topic he feels more confident about, he shares no guilt in this new topic) “The men of Ijon captured him. Would’ve wanted to know where to find this city and its weaknesses. They’d be at our gates if they’d broken him. I killed the man who’d taken the seax as loot.” (displays respect, subtext – Wyne was an honorable man to the end)
“Our men—how many fell…” Barric’s voice grew quiet. (shock sinks in)
Dell glanced back at those with him. A couple shrugged and a third shook his head. (subtext – these men have served together for a while are familiar with each other, survivor guilt) “I’d guess most of those who survived are standing here with me.”
Her mouth gaped. Fewer than fifty men had come through the gates with Dell, but two hundred had left with her father. This wasn’t possible. (shock)
“The men of Ijon did this? Not the man-wolves? You’re sure?” Barric lifted a hand to quiet the elders who stood murmuring and whispering amongst themselves. (back in command)
“I should have been there. I could have helped.” (shame) Why had Wynne and Garvin made her stay behind? “I might’ve been able to stop—”
“Girl, there was nothin anyone could’ve done. You’d have shared his fate, like as not. Your Fa kept ya here on purpose.” Dell met her gaze. (body language of open honesty – he’s not hiding anything) “We were betrayed from within. Musta been.”
She stared at the floor. (thinking body language – concentrate on her thoughts) But only the elders knew the battle plan. Fa wouldn’t even tell her. She turned to Barric. “Did you know of Wyne’s battle plans?” He shook his head and she looked to Edric, her father’s replacement, and he shook his head also.
(anger) Surely they would reveal their guilt under the right circumstances. She pointed the blade at the elders, first one and then another. (reckless) “You did this. All of you. You’re to blame.” She pointed at the box. “Wyne advised against this war, spoke out against the corruption that banished the man-wolves and crippled our defenses. And now he’s dead.” Her voice rose to a feminine screech. (outward loss of control) “They’re all dead!”
Pause the scene here. Hopefully at the beginning of the scene readers picked up on how controlled Felora is normally. She thinks through how things will look, where she needs to stand to get the upper hand, etc. Now, she’s lost that control. Out of fight, flight or freeze, she’s chosen fight. What does that tell you about her character?
Barric held up his hands palms out. “We’ll investigate Dell’s claim. This isn’t the time or place to assign blame, not when the grief is so near.” (asserting dominance)
The edges of her mouth turned down and her throat constricted. She pressed the tip of the seax against the elder her father had blamed for the foolhardy idea to go to war. “Was this your plan all along? Get rid of the only two men with enough spine to oppose you?”
Maxton looked to Barric, his back arched away from her blade. “Do something.”
“Everything I have done. Have worked for. Wanted to become—was for my father.” Her words were punctuated with short breaths. “And now he’s gone. And it’s your fault. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you.”
Sweat trickled down his temple and his eyes widened. (fear) “Barric?”
“Felora, please. You’re upset. We all are. We need time to think through what’s happened.” Barric held out a hand and waved his fingers for her to relinquish the blade.
She wiped her nose on her sleeve and choked back a sob. “I don’t need time to think. I’m done talking.” She ignored the snot crawling toward her lips. “Talking got us here.”
Dell grabbed her wrist with his bandaged hand. “Put it down, girl.” He pressed down on her arm. She resisted. “Won’t do anyone any good. Won’t bring him back. He’d tear a strip off ya one side and down the other if he saw ya like this. That’s no toy.” (subtext and backstory – one of the only people who could talk sense into her was her father – also juxtaposing Dell’s handling of her anger and Barric’s and which one was effective – what does that show us?)
“I know how to use this.” Spittle mixed with tears sprayed from her lips. (trying to keep control of the situation – anger)
“You’re lethal with it, I know—that’s what I’m afraid of.” Dell pushed her arm down to her side. (fear/excitement are over quickly – the adrenaline is wearing off) “That’s it. We’ll get it sorted.”
The elders retreated from the hall and Barric dismissed Dell and the soldiers. She knelt in front of the box on the floor. “How do I fix this? What would you have me do?” The box didn’t answer. (anger spent, grief surfaces as the predominant emotion at the moment)
This is a long post, but hopefully being able see how the emotions are layered in helps. Each emotion doesn’t need it’s own paragraph. Sometimes it’s a gesture, a short bit of internal dialogue, or a piece of body language. Give your readers credit – put them to work in figuring it out. This is why you have beta readers to test your work. Also, see how there’s very little extraneous narrative here. Most gestures, body language cues, internal dialogue, etc. are all working as evidence to SHOW emotions and put the reader IN the story. This is the power of deep point of view.
Been told you should learn Deep Point Of View? Had an editor or critique partner tell you to “go deeper” with the emotions in your fiction? Looking for a community of writers seeking to create emotional connections with readers? Check out the Free Resource Hub and then join the Going Deeper With Emotions In Fiction Facebook group.
Janet Pierce says
This was great. Thanks for the example!