How to Show Emotion

emotion

How to Show Emotion

Showing emotion is often one of the toughest things to do—in the sense of having the reader feel and identify with the feelings of the character.

You can do it by “He was sad,” but that’s not showing the emotion—that’s just telling the reader your take on the character’s mental condition. Look at the image above. If you describe what the person in the middle picture is doing rather than labeling it, you might come up with, “He dabbed a handkerchief to one eye.”

While that description doesn’t necessarily tug at the heart strings, it could be the beginning of a more effective scene.

“I can’t believe she’d do that.” He was sad.

Versus

“I can’t believe she’d do that.” He dabbed a handkerchief to one eye.

See, there is a subtle difference. It is easier for the reader to connect with the character’s action than with the writer’s description of it.

Emotion is tough

Here are some thoughts about how to get better at emotion in your characters.

Be specific. As in the example above, describe the action rather than your interpretation of it. Not He was pissed but His lips straightened into a thin line.

Don’t name the emotion. In one of those perverse things that is just life, the most effective way to show emotion is never to use the name of the feeling you are going for. That is, you don’t say he’s bewildered, you show how a person would act in that state. It’s not always easy to do but if you can’t picture it enough to describe it, how can you expect the reader to get it?

Differentiate between you and the character. In order to have fully realized characters, you need to depict how the character feels in the situation not how you would feel. Your villain might chortle with glee when the heroine falls off the cliff; you might gasp. You want to avoid having your characters acting/feeling as you might—it makes for a homogeneous emotional landscape and is therefore boring.

Be in touch with your own emotions. This one follows on from the previous point. If you don’t have a visceral connection to your feelings, its lack will show up on the page in a mysterious way. If you are hiding you from yourself, it’s harder to create characters that have access to the full range of emotions. I know this is a big thing to lay down and then walk away from, but how you get truly in touch with your feelings is outside the scope of this blog. But is nonetheless very worthwhile pursuing, quite aside from the benefits to your writing. See, I told you this is hard.

You don’t need to do it all the time

When the characters’ emotional state is an important part of the story, then you’d probably be better off showing than telling. But when it is not, and this is likely to be the majority of the characters the majority of the time, you don’t need to. And in fact, an exhaustive description of how everyone is feeling will likely slow down the action and bore your readers.

How to Tell Whether it’s Being Shown or Told

shown

How to Tell Whether it’s Being Shown or Told

As I covered in a previous post, Let the Reader Participate in the Story, whether a story is shown or told can make a big difference to the reader’s enjoyment. However, writers often have trouble knowing what mode they’re writing in. So, the post is about telling the difference between show and tell.

Shown or told?

Look at the image at the top of this post. Is the story being shown or told? Obviously what the person is saying is very vivid as the other person can picture it. So that makes it shown, right?

I would say not—one person is telling the story to another other. Shown would be relating it from the point of view (POV) of the woman watching the ship. I think this is telling because the story-teller (blue person on the left) has to infer what the protagonist is thinking and feeling. If told from the protagonist’s POV, the chances of it being shown go up.

Other examples

This is a deceptively simple concept as I think the example above indicates. I realize that not everyone might agree with my take on it and I accept that opinions can differ on the line between the two concepts. Which just shows you how complex this whole thing is. So, let’s try a couple more examples.

Told

The town has never welcomed strangers. Dunno why. Some say it’s the prairie air. Others think that the townspeople have never gotten over that unfortunate hot air balloon invasion of 1984. But fact remains, the municipality of Dunton Heights is only good for those who were born in it.

Does it surprise you that this is that I consider this a tell passage? It is because the reader is told how to think about the town (i.e. unwelcoming). A way to show this might be a scene when a stranger moves into the town.

It should be noted that tell has its place. If this passage were unimportant information that the reader nevertheless needs to know, it’s a good use of tell. In addition, tell does not preclude the author’s voice coming across.

Shown

Ice crunched under Shana’s feet. She closed her eyes against the blowing snow and thought about how difficult everything was. If only she could banish her problems as easily as she could shake off the snowflakes.

Again, perhaps a bit of a surprise as show often uses dialogue. But not necessary. We are being shown what is physically happening around her. Tell would more likely be something like:

Shana loved winter and usually welcomed it. But her problems are not going to melt as easily as a snowfall would.

See, this is pretty tough. The rule of thumb I use: if what I wrote tells the reader what to think about the situation, it’s more likely tell (e.g. the town didn’t welcome strangers). If the writing lets the reader decide what is happening (e.g. ice crunching underfoot suggests winter), then it’s more likely show. But not always. Sorry.

He Shoots, He Shows!

shows

He Shoots, He Shows!

‘Show’ not ‘tell’ is the mantra of writing. In a previous post, Showing Show and Tell, I’ve discussed it, but it is so central to good story telling and people seem to have so much trouble with it, I think I will do a series on the phenomenon.

Why is ‘show’ important?

Excellent question, even if I do say so myself. Let me give you examples.

Tell: He was livid and Jenny was afraid.

Show: His lips pursed and a hand came banging down on the table. Jenny shivered.

Tell: It was a great game and Andrew was pumped.

Show: Andrew threw the ball in the air and yelled, “We won! Can you believe it?”

On the surface, these might look like relatively minor and even insignificant changes. But the difference is actually quite great. In tell, as you see from the examples, the writer is almost always deciding how the reader should feel. She is, in effect, being told by the writer, trust me, this is how it was.

But when show is used, the reader sees the incident on which the writer had based his conclusion. This allows her to decide how she feels about the events.

Not a big deal in the examples above, I grant you. But what about this example?

A more important example

Tell: Anne was desperate to hide her mistake. After her boss had left for the day, she looked through his desk to find the document. But he returned just as she found it. Quickly, she decided she had to distract him.

Show: “Good night, Anne.”

“Good night, Brad.” Anne watched Brad get on the elevator before she jumped up and headed into his office.

She pulled open the top drawer. There it was. She picked it up.

“What are you doing?” Brad!

She closed the drawer and said slowly, “What do you think I’m doing?”

Okay, is she just stalling for time or is she coming on to him? Presumably, the text following will answer the question but the show example is more compelling because you have put the reader in the situation itself. And even allowed her to engage with the story by wondering what Anne is going to do.

Shows take more effort and thinking

Generally, it is true that showing takes more effort and thinking. You have to go from the easy he was pissed to the more difficult consideration of what someone does or says in that state. How does he look? Does he bang the table or does he hiss his words? Are his eyes blazing or cold?

The added benefit to this approach is you give the reader more on the character. An eyes blazing, table-banging pissed or a hissing, cold pissed, implies two different types.

The good news is that you don’t need to do this with every character, every scene. There will be minor characters who don’t merit big show scenes or events which are not critical to the plot which nevertheless must be covered. These might be good candidates for tell.

I suspect that there may be some discomfort when considering these suggestions, the top one being, “But I want readers to see the story as I intend. I don’t want it to be open to interpretation.”

Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. Readers always put their own spin on the reading—which is part of the fun of it. But I suspect that this is not so easily dispensed with so I will do another post, Readers Participate in Your Story.

Exposition

exposition

Exposition

Exposition is critical as it provides background which the reader needs to appreciate the plot and/or characters. An example:

It was understandable that George would act like that. Dad was army and retired as a general. Not the top—which I think made him bitter. He got to Brigadier General which is a one star general. The top guy is four stars. I think Dad thought he should have risen higher and took it out on us.

He ran our home like boot camp. My mother tried to protect us but Dad really had it out for George—maybe because he was the oldest. George got slapped down for every little thing. One time, it was for breaking a glass. Even though Mom kept saying it was an accident, Dad gave George a clip on the ear that swelled it up for days. So, when George got away from home, he was pretty mad.

Not a horrible paragraph and for exposition of the type I’m talking about, not even all that long.

What’s wrong with exposition?

Absolutely nothing. It is completely necessary but exposition, almost by its nature, slows down the forward action. It is a pause while you tell the reader something she needs to know. But if it goes on too long, readers get restless and/or bored. And they start skipping to more interesting bits which defeats your purpose.

Multiple extensive expositions in your story will make the reader more likely to say something like, “I put it down and just couldn’t get back into it.” Not the only reason for a reader to abandon a book but too many blocks of exposition can be a contributing factor.

Writing exposition without slowing the action

Cut it down to the pertinent facts.

It was understandable that George would act like that. Dad was army and ran our home like boot camp. Dad really had it out for him—maybe because he was the oldest. So, when George got away from home, he was pretty mad.

You might not agree with my particular cuts but the point is to keep the exposition to a minimum. If George’s relationship with his father is really important, you might dramatize the glass-breaking incident in a flashback.

This is not the time to show off all the research you have done into the armed forces. When you use research in a story, keep it to the facts the reader needs to know at that moment in order to understand the situation.

Weave it into the story

Think about showing the effect his father had on George either through flashback or the way he acts in the present. If you do that, the reader will get the relationship without having to spend a lot of time in explaining and/or slowing the action. Breaking up a long explanation into a back-and-forth conversation, especially if it reveals something about the speakers (“But a lot of military families…”), avoids a feeling of stopping the action.

A protest?

I realize that there may be some hackles raised as you protest, “But the reader needs to know this.” I am not doubting that; I am just encouraging you to both keep it to what she needs right at that moment and consider actually expanding some of the exposition (e.g. Dad was bitter that he didn’t rise higher in the forces) to give a fuller picture rather than cramming it in as an aside on the way to the main point about George.

The Danger of Adverbs

adverbs

The Danger of Adverbs

You’ve gotta be a writer if you’d be willing to read a posts about adverbs. I tried to stir up a little drama by calling them dangerous but even I don’t think it umps the interest all that much.

What is an adverb?

Somewhere along the line, English teachers quit teaching grammar. I don’t know if they decided to release time for Higher Things or they got bored doing it. And grammar is kind of boring. Possibly, you can make the argument that readers don’t need grammar but writers need to know a bit.

So, for those of you who had progressive English teachers, an adverb often ends in ‘ly’ and typically describes how an action is done. ‘He said it tauntingly.’ ‘She moved slowly.’ ‘He grinned weakly.

Here’s a paragraph with adverbs.

She looked at him scornfully. “You really expect me to believe that?”

“It’s true!” he said defensively.

“No way you were there,” she said emphatically.

“I was so!” he said angrily.

 Not deathless prose but other than that, what’s so bad about using adverbs?

Adverbs are short-hand and second-hand emotion

First of all, you might not have needed any of the adverbs above. Read it again without them.

She looked at him. “You really expect me to believe that?”

“It’s true!” he said.

“No way you were there.”

“I was so!”

 

Don’t you think the dialog gets across all the emotions used in the adverbs? I certainly get the anger, defensiveness and scorn. Sometimes you don’t need them because what you wrote already makes it clear. And doesn’t the scene move faster without them (added bonus—you can drop a couple of ‘said’s)?

But secondly, and more importantly, adverbs can be an emotional short-hand. Instead of showing the protagonist being angry (e.g. shouting, throwing something, talking through gritted teeth) you just assure the reader that he is by using ‘angrily.’ This doesn’t allow the reader to judge for himself and can also diminish the force of the emotion by encapsulating it in one word.

When it is okay to use adverbs?

Having said that, adverbs can be appropriate. If the scene or character is incidental to the plot, it may not be worth dramatizing every emotion and that’s where an adverb like ‘angrily’ can be used effectively. In fact, dramatizing every emotion of every character can clog up the story with unneeded and therefore boring explorations into psyches we fundamentally are not meant to care all that much about.

But when the character and/or the plot point is important, take the time to show the emotion. In fact, I think the pinnacle of writing about emotion is when you show it so well that you don’t have to name it. The character can hang her head, be silent, cry, and her shoulders can droop. You can convey sadness without having to have either you or the character name it. But the reader gets it. Much more effective dramatically.

 

So, adverbs are okay but beware of making them your default position. Slow yourself down enough to identify when you are dealing with an important emotional moment in your story and show it to your readers.