Showing vs. Telling—Feeeeeeeeeelings . . .
As a reminder, here are the three areas Sol Stein lists as vulnerable to telling rather than showing:
- Telling what happened before the story began
- Telling what a character looks like
- Telling what a character senses (the 5 senses) and feels (emotions)
We’re going to tackle the last part of #3—Character Emotions. This is a hard one, but can be so rewarding when, for a brief moment, we grasp it and find ourselves showing what our characters are feeling without having to think about it.
As I mentioned, I feel there are two standard signposts of telling when it comes to descriptions, senses, and emotions:
Character WAS adjective. (Ned was handsome.)
Character FELT adjective. (Charlotte felt tired.)
This is the type of writing that comes natural to most of us. Starting today, however, train your brain to associate the word FELT with that heavy, scratchy, stiff fabric used for arts and crafts and not character emotions. Felt does not make comfortable clothing, so why “dress” your characters with it? (Ha! And I wasn’t even trying to come up with an analogy!)
One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was in a seminar in grad school: make the emotions DO something to the character. Make the emotion the subject of an active verb instead of just an adjective. (Get out your grammar book if you must.)
Which of the following sentences gives you the best visual of the emotion being experienced?:
- Molly felt scared.
- Fear made Molly’s skin tingle.
- Fear tingled on Molly’s skin.
- Fear ran down Molly’s spine like a hundred tiny mice with cold feet.
Yes, showing uses more words. But it also draws the reader into the story and is an opportunity for characterization. In which sentence do you feel like you know something about Molly? Also, don’t be afraid of similes, metaphors, or other symbolic language—just be sure to avoid clichés or dogeared language.
The most important question that must be answered when deciding how best to show your characters’ emotions is: What is your character’s internal vocabulary? In other words, in what unique way does your character view and label the world? Is she an introvert or extrovert? Optimist or pessimist? Cheerful or depressed? Realistic/logical or given to flights of fancy? What is his social background? What are the cultural/generational influences he grew up with?
Because a World War II veteran who helped liberate the concentration camp at Auschwitz is going to view things differently than a Gen-Xer who grew up in 1980s California. And by giving your POV characters unique internal vocabularies, you deepen the characterization and draw the reader further into your story.
In Brandilyn Collins’ excellent book on characterization, Getting into Character, she covers this at length in the chapter “Coloring Passions.” She writes, “If you want to portray a passion to its utmost, you must focus not on the passion itself, but on its varied components.” One of the best ways to do this is to contrast it against its opposite: “If your character is harsh, find what is gentle in him. If she’s selfish, find her generous side. If she’s self-confident, find her point of self-doubt. If he’s emotionally strong, find his weakness.” In other words, show all sides of the emotions—dig deep to find your characters’ full internal vocabularies.
Characters’ emotions should add energy and keep up the pace of the action in the scene instead of being like a FULL STOP of a telegram. Just as one of the best ways to give character descriptions is in the process of action, use the adjectives and descriptions of emotions to “paint” the landscape of the ongoing scene. If your scene takes place at night, use your character’s emotional vocabulary to set the mood:
- The hostile moon glared over the jagged wolf’s teeth of the mountains.
- The incandescent moon dangled like a diamond ring in the rosy remains of the breathtaking sunset.
Even though I haven’t mentioned a character, do you get a feeling for what someone in each circumstance might be feeling?
If you don’t yet have it bookmarked in your favorites or on your favorites toolbar, as soon as you finish reading this blog, go to www.thesaurus.com and bookmark it. Whenever you feel a “felt” coming on, go to the thesaurus and figure out how to come up with an active emotion.
Lady Caroline Lam wrote in her diary of George Gordon, Lord Byron, that he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” For two hundred years since then, romance novelists have been “showing” what this means through their Fabio-esque bad-boy-who-must-be-conquered heroes. These three descriptors are a good starting point for brainstorming. If you are having trouble showing your characters’ emotions, I suggest reading poetry—yes, that’s right, I, the poetry hater, am recommending it! Poetry is an outflowing of emotion using descriptive, showing language. The poet does not write: Today I saw a bird. It made me happy. The poet shows the happiness through the use of descriptive and oftentimes metaphoric or symbolic language. For example:
George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron. 1788–1824598. For Music
THERE be none of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee;
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me:
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmèd ocean’s pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull’d winds seem dreaming:
And the midnight moon is weaving
Her bright chain o’er the deep;
Whose breast is gently heaving,
As an infant’s asleep:
So the spirit bows before thee,
To listen and adore thee;
With a full but soft emotion,
Like the swell of Summer’s ocean.
How do you use something like this? Here’s an example:
She sang as she worked, the sweetness of her tone enough to still the ocean and lull the winds to sleep. How would he ever work up the courage to speak to her?
Get the picture? Here’s your assignment. Take an image from this poem (perhaps one of the colored portions) and apply it to the statement: George was in love, or share an example from your own writing of how you have used your characters’ emotional vocabulary to show how they are feeling.