Showing is better than telling.
I know, I know. DUH.
So here's another way to show a character's intense emotions:
The pacing and organization of the narration or inner thoughts.
I'm taking a page from the haunting Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. It's about a girl who's been living in the clutches of a sadistic pedophile for years. It is extraordinary. And thoroughly harrowing.
As I was reading Living Dead Girl, I noticed something. Although the entire book is narrated by the MC (the pedophile only calls her "Alice", but I can't bear to) and it's deep in her point of view, she rarely says she's terrified or scared or upset or ... anything. She sometimes talks about what's happening to her body as a result of a strong emotion, but not often, because she's convinced she feels nothing at all. And yet, at certain moments, her terror is obvious.
How? When she's really distressed, dreading what's going to happen or what is happening, her inner thoughts and narration in general become incredibly jumbled. Her sentences run together. They get longer and the punctuation disappears, leaving this:
... and I am talking, babbling, grinding out words through a cracked throat I have a plan never hurt you never leave you love you please love you please ...and this:
His eyes are gleaming and he stands up and he has been thinking about her while I've been gone and then whispers what he will do to her, what I will help him do ...
I don't need her to tell me she's terrified or full of dread. I can see it. I can FEEL it. She doesn't need to tell me her heart is pounding. I know it is. And mine, when I read it, certainly is. Without a single emotion label or description of physical sensation, I get it. I'm right there with her, freaked out for her and hurting for her.
Clearly, losing your punctuation isn't the only way to accomplish the goal of showing intense emotion. You can make your tone more staccato and clipped by shortening your sentences, phrases and words. You can show disorganization and confusion with sentence fragments and rapid transitions. You can switch from one style to another within a scene to convey a major change in the character's thinking or state of mind.
Of course, everything you write is in the service of the story, so you have to keep it tight. You have to be selective and choose your words just right. You have to do just enough to convey the perfect intensity, but not too much, or you'll totally confuse the reader or bog down your pace. And no matter what your technique, you have to know the language--grammar, punctuation, and all--to be able to do this well. You can't break the rules until you know them inside and out. Sometimes it's art. Sometimes it's just bad writing.
But I save that for the editing. Sometimes, if I'm writing a scene like this, I just close my eyes and type. (Yes, I can type fast without looking. It's how I survived grad school.) When I do that, it helps me access the character's thoughts--I just let go, and I write everything that's going through my character's mind. I end up cutting a huge portion of that, sure, and shaping whatever's left, but I think the flavor of that emotion can be preserved if I don't edit myself the first time around. That's just me, though.
So what about you--how do you show a character's intense emotion?
(Oh, and I'm not done with Living Dead Girl. On Friday, I'll be posting about Scott's characterization of her MC and the effects of trauma on young people's brains.)