Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sunday Musings: There’s a difference – afraid, excited, nervous

Hello, again, Musers.

We're going to toss in a writing exercise here, something that may seem simple, but...

Using your writer POV define for our readers the differences between these emotional reactions: afraid, excited, nervous.  The body reacts pretty much the same but how do we show this to convey the differences, what are the differences.

...words are never that simple.

I found this a challenging question. A body can shiver, sweat, and be alert with the rush of adrenalin in all three states. Facial expression and body posture would show the difference I guess. Fear implies cowering, shrinking, making yourself smaller (before running away perhaps). Excitement is a happier anticipation, wide-eyed perhaps, more open posture, moving towards something you want. Nervousness is uncertainty as to whether the situation is going to be experienced as good or bad and there might be more physical movement here, eyes darting around, restless pacing about.

Nervousness is anxiety at the possibility of something bad or frightening happening, whereas fear is the result of something bad or frightening having happened. Excitement is the anticipation of something remarkable about to occur. Usually, we instinctively recognise when someone is experiencing either fear, excitement or nervousness by observing subtle changes in expression which are quite difficult to describe. When writing about those emotions, I often think of what a character might be doing with their hands. A fearful person might grip something tightly until their knuckles go white whereas a nervous person might drum their fingers on the table or twiddle their thumbs. An excited person might make fluttering movements with their hands or expansive gestures.

MJ LABEFF, New Mainstream author

Maybe this is a bit cliché, but there are certain relatable phrases we use in everyday life to convey these physical reactions- heart racing, palms sweating, hands fidgeting, fist pumping- a character might twirl her hair or bite her nails if she’s nervous, she might scream, gasp or jerk backward if she’s afraid, or jump up and down or pump her fist in the air if she’s excited. Being afraid causes an intense adrenaline rush because fear happens unexpectedly. A character may not anticipate being kidnapped, fighting an attacker during a home invasion, being held up at gunpoint at the store or something as simple as opening her front door to find someone waiting on the other side. Excitement also causes an adrenaline rush, but I don’t think it’s as gripping and is usually interpreted as a happy and good emotion. Nervousness is brought on usually when we’re waiting to learn or discover something. You can’t be still when you’re nervous. A character could pace, twist the necklace at her neck, shake her hands, or take deep and slow breaths. The emotions of fear, excitement and nervousness happen at different rates of speed to me and so a character’s actions have to match that level of intensity.   

Afraid implies an active threat, even if it’s only perceived. Senses are sharper. Eyes dart around the room. A drop of water falling from an overhang is easily imagined as an attack. Mostly, it’s an external sensation. There’s a pounding heart, but no butterflies in the stomach. No misplaced giggles or random talking. Everyone and everything is a threat. Hands are held ready, in fists or open, but ready for action either way. If one holds a weapon, it will be constantly adjusted in the grip in tiny ways. The body has filled in the “ight” and is just waiting to see if the word starts with an “F” or “Fl.”

Excited comes with a lighter pounding in the chest. It’s the quiet snare drum of a jazz piece rather than the thumping bass of a metal song. Eyes scan the room, but not a prey animal. They’re looking for someone, anyone, to share the moment. Excided people strike up conversations in lines or on busses or trains. They want to tell someone. They have to tell someone. If they don’t, they might burst. Fingers flutter. Feet bounce. There’s probably a dopey grin on the face.

Nervous sees that pounding heart settle into the stomach and sort of thrash around, stirring things up. Eyes don’t dart around the room, or even drift. They tend to look at that spot of nothing on the floor, or they look up to plead for help. Palms get sweaty and repeatedly rubbed on pantlegs or whatever else is handy. The face is neutral and the mouth might be muttering quietly, practicing the speech it’s about to deliver, or the horrible news it must report. Feet might shift side to side, as if stirring up the dirt to find an answer.

Dear reader, thank you again for joining us and we’d love to hear from you. Keep smiling and have a fun week. Never stop believing. See you next Sunday…nothing better than being cozy in bed with some Musings.

If you have a question or comment you’d like us to muse upon, do not hesitate to contact me Christine Steeves-Speakman  at

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