Writing Exposition with the Third Emotion

Confession: I cringe writing exposition.


Maybe it’s just that I’m not good at it. Maybe it’s the legacy of catching myself in purple prose during middle school. Maybe it’s the part of me that wants to snap at the reader, “She was in a coffee shop. What did it look like? Like a coffee shop. Any kind you like. Just pick one– I’ve got things to do.”


It’s frustrating having to sit in front of a screen and try to come up with something to satisfy and ground my readers, yet has relatively little relevance to the parts I actually want to dig into (mostly action or conflict). I don’t really care what the shopping mall looks like. I don’t really care how the weather may or may not foreshadow soon-to-be events.


A lot of writers have already linked emotion and exposition in their minds. We’ve all seen a rainy day used to highlight sorrow or a run down location used to symbolize faded and broken dreams. However, those examples have become part of a shorthand. They’ve become as commonplace as most other cliches. Funerals are almost always rainy. Happy days are almost always sunny. Does the sky really have to cry with my character?

My emotions! MY EMOTIONS!!!!!

Looking for an evasive maneuver, I’d hammer out a line or two about the location or time of day in order to appease my beta readers and move on. Resigning myself to being bad at exposition was far easier than doing battle with my own impatience.


At least, that was until I went to a conference panel about using the third emotion in exposition.


Instead of writing a laundry list of attributes (sunny, cold, brick, whatever) or trying to beat my readers over the head with the obvious emotions of my characters, exposition subtly put reinforced a spectrum of emotion. Instead of containing a handful of details to convey setting, my exposition contained atmosphere.

I’ll show you what I mean. Here’s an example:


Magda clenched her fists, scowling up at where he stood clutching the hammer. The red brick wall, now chipped, glared down at them.


In this example, the emotion conveyed through exposition within the second sentence matches the character’s emotion, expressed in the first: anger. The hammer and the chipped wall imply a touch of violence, but not feeling. The second sentence is descriptive, sure, but we don’t know anything else about the emotional eco-system around the characters other than that same anger set up by her response. Was learning that there was a brick wall really worth the redundancy?


Instead, let’s tap into Magda’s third emotion:


Magda clenched her fists, scowling up at where he stood clutching the hammer. The red brick wall, now chipped, hovered in the distant background with bystander blankness.


In this example, we learn something more. The atmosphere deepens. Magda isn’t just angry– she’s on her own and she knows it.

isolated woman
Let’s take it to an existential place. Yeah. That’s what we all needed in our day….

That’s the somewhat misleading thing about calling this technique “the third emotion”. It’s not necessarily limited to a straight emotional responses, such as fear, happiness, or surprise. It can include more concepts, namely how a character feels about something in particular. This technique is especially effective when you link it to some other concept that may not be apparent.


Another example:

His back stiffened as he stepped forward. The champagne flecked marble of the entranceway stretched before him, dotted with gleaming crystal light fixtures that offered him no illumination.


In this example, we’re not just conveying that “he” feels intimidated. If that was the case, we only needed to show his back stiffening. It’s the exposition that adds the other element, the missing piece of the puzzle: “champagne”, “gold”, “marble”, “crystal” all convey wealth or power. Those symbols also “offer him no illumination”. Here we find the third emotion: while on the surface, the rest of this character’s scene may mark him as determined or whatever his obvious primary emotion may be, but the exposition clearly shows that he’s intimidated specifically by this wealth.


How do you write with the third emotion, you may wonder, since by now I’ve totally sold you on it?

hand shake salesman
About that time share, though….

How good of you to ask. 🙂


  • First, identify the primary emotion of your viewpoint character. This should be pretty simple as it is often identifiable by the actions and visible emotions. In our earlier example, Magda is clearly angry. If you don’t favor the viewpoint of one character over another, you can start by narrowing what appears to be their dynamic on the surface: teamwork, agreement, hostility, etc.
  • Second, identify the next emotion. This is usually very similar to the first emotion, and if you were to use it for exposition, it would be hard to tell apart from the first. For example, a character with the primary emotion of happiness might also feel contentment.
  • Third, identify the next emotion in line. This is going to be related to, but distinct from, the first emotion. Magda might feel angry as well as frustrated, but the third “emotion” she feels is that she’s on her own (or alone, to put it simply).
  • Fourth, infuse that third “feeling about something” into the descriptions surrounding the primary emotion. The placement should flow pretty naturally. Choosing descriptions and details to focus on can take a bit of time and might be challenging at first, but within a few attempts should get easier and easier.

writing advice, exposition writing, third emotion

What are still doing here? You should be writing.

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