I was watching a video of some kids dancing, recently—well, one of them was dancing. The other was running in figure 8s and 9s swinging his arms wildly in the air above his head. I’m a naturally cautious person and I kept cringing in anticipation of him whacking someone in the head or knocking something to the ground. But I also reveled in his obvious delight those helicoptering limbs portrayed. I was reminded of an action I’ve noticed occurring more and more in projects I've been editing:

The character “threw his arms up.”

I wonder if the character is overstimulated and letting off steam, like the boy in my dance video.

Perhaps. Very possibly, that's not it. There are many other times when people, children and adults alike, throw up their arms as an expression of big emotions. At sporting events people throw their arms up when their team scores. And when their team is robbed. (I’m starting to get confused…you, too?) At the airport people throw their arms up (or open) when greeting arriving family members. People who are afraid of an assailant often throw their arms up as a show of submission. I’ve thrown my arms up when celebrating big successes like getting a job offer or reaching the top of the stairs at my physical therapist's office. (I celebrate all my wins Rocky style.)

Anyway, it’s confusing, right? Throwing your arms in the air can demonstrate a number of emotional states. I'm curious what your first thought was about that character above who "threw his arms up." Did you think the character was angry or frustrated? Here's a confession: When I see this description in manuscripts, anger or frustration are the typical emotions the character is feeling. I know this because they don’t simply throw their arms up, they throw their arms up “in anger.” Or “in frustration.”

There are two things about that description that ring alarm bells for me. The first is that it’s so common. It is a cliché and if you’re relying on clichés to show me what your character is feeling, you’re not digging deep enough. Clichés have been overused to the point of having no meaning. They no longer make readers feel, intimately, the emotion you want them to feel.

Additionally, there are two (at least) emotions this particular cliché is commonly assumed to describe, and that is a recipe for ambiguity or confusion. If you want to invite, to insist, a reader feel something, be specific. And be unique to your character. Is your character just like every other character? No! Your character is an individual and should have their singular reaction to anger. Or frustration. Or delight. And I’ll tell you the truth, if your character acts a bit outside of what I expected, I’m gonna be interested in reading more.

There are three takeaways I’ve discerned from these types of descriptions:

  • If you have to modify the body language with the name of the emotion it’s meant to convey, then it’s not doing its job.
  • If the body language could be understood to convey more than one possible emotion, it’s not doing its job.
  • If the body language you describe to convey a particular emotion is so common that readers can finish the phrase before finishing reading—and accurately, even when out of context—then it may be doing its job, but not very powerfully. With a little more work, you can create a better experience for your readers.

Let’s look at how you might create a more immersive emotional experience with well-crafted body language.

Obviously readers will have context. Well, they will have context if you provide it. So the first element to look at in your writing is whether what surrounds the body language is supporting your intended emotion. Real people, when they throw their arms in the air, employ the rest of their body, too, when expressing their emotions. Celebrating sports fans jump up and down, and whoop and holler. Appalled sports fans, after throwing their arms in the air, might sink into their stadium seats. They might also let loose some expletives, but when we’re writing for kids we can probably leave that bit to the imagination. A victim of a mugging might throw their arms up and back away from their assailant.

Faces are also a part of how people, and characters, physically express their emotions, but I’m not going into that today. You should be as cautious about using clichéd or ambiguous micro-expressions and facial movements as you are using big body movements, though.

Remember, too, that people aren’t mute when they’re feeling big feels. Like the whooping sports fans, a young child seeing his mom exit the airport departure lobby might exclaim loudly that she’s finally home. Someone afraid for their safety might utter words of prayer or plead for mercy.

And it’s not just the character feeling the emotion who reacts. If there are other characters in the scene, they can reveal the type and intensity of emotion, too. Their body language, actions and reactions, and what they say will show the reader as much as the feeling character’s actions. So don’t neglect them.

Now that you’ve considered all the ways people, and characters, express their emotions with their faces and bodies and words, consider which of these is most authentic to your character and the situation they’re currently experiencing. Read what you’ve (re)written and ask yourself if the cliched phrase is still necessary and appropriate. You might find, having peered deeper into your character and yourself, that it’s no longer right for the job.