Monday, January 24, 2011

Feeling Emotional—Don’t Tell Anyone!

instead show them

Telling the story, instead of showing it, is one of the most common mistakes beginners make. During the first draft almost all of us, no matter how advanced, tend to tell a lot of the story. It’s only natural. This is the time when our manuscript comes together and telling allows us to develop the bones or structure of the story before we refine it into a compelling work of fiction. But beginners often stop the refining process too early. So how do we take a story from just bare bones? One of the best ways is to add depth by showing how our characters feel without naming the emotions.

Now, I know a lot of you are probably having the same reaction I did when I first heard it wasn’t a good idea to name an emotion. I had a rather loud conversation with the writing book that first shared this nugget of information.

“You have got to be kidding me! Who made up this stupid rule? How can I tell the reader what’s going on if I don’t use words like scared or angry?”

And there is the crux of the problem—beginning writers always default back to telling the story. Writing fiction is hard work. It takes a lot of time and effort to write a book and write it well. You already know this—after all that’s why you’re taking the time to read and study about how to improve.

Like I mentioned, I didn’t have a positive reaction to my first exposure to this convention. But now it’s an aspect of rewriting that I enjoy and even look forward to. I look on this as a challenge—a game of sorts. The best part of this game is that when I, the author wins, everybody else does too. Am I nuts? Absolutely, but I am, after all, a writer!

Let me give you some examples. I’ll start each out with an excerpt where name the emotion. Then, in the second, I'll let you see how I changed it to let the reader name the emotion by interpreting the character’s actions.

Example 1
Emotions Named:
She began to cry as shame and anger warred inside. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” Her voice sounded hoarse as she tried to control her frustration.

Emotions Implied:
Tears flooded her eyes, making his features blur as she lifted her head and tried to focus. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” Her voice came out like a croak and she tried to clear her throat, but choked on the unshed tears.

The first excerpt tells the reader what’s going on. Granted, the writing is clear, but we’ve all heard the expression that a picture is worth a thousand words. The second excerpt is that picture. It invites the reader into the action and leaves them to draw their own conclusions.

Here’s another one.

Example 2
Emotions Named:
Manaen rose, her anger giving her strength as she faced her brother. “Do not think to intimidate me.” His arrogance amazed her even as it infuriated her. “I am not a child to be bullied. My Lord’s Spirit speaks to me as clearly as to you.”

Emotions Implied:
Manaen rose in response, her eyes almost even with his as she drew herself up to her full height, oblivious of her feminine garment. “Do not think to intimidate me.” Her jaw worked as she gritted her teeth. “I am not a child to be bullied. My Lord’s Spirit speaks to me as clearly as to you.”

And a final one.

Example 3
Emotions Named:
Rage sent Josiah shooting to his feet. “I tell you, Manaen, I’ve never witnessed any Elder behave in this manner.” Josiah paced, feeling like his world was collapsing. Confusion made him restless. “I just don’t understand.”

Emotions Implied:
He shot up from the desk, upsetting the chair. “I tell you, Manaen, I’ve never witnessed any Elder behave in this manner.” Josiah prowled through the briefing area of their quarters, picking things up and setting them down again. “I just don’t understand.”

Now it’s your turn. Take one of these two sentences and show us the emotion in place of naming it.

Example 1
Susan’s agony flooded through her as sorrow mingled with guilt. “What have I done?”

Example 2
“Hello? Who’s there?” Jenny’s fear reached a crescendo as the footsteps above moved toward the stairs.

I can't wait to see what you come up with - so
Don't forget to join the conversation!


  1. I LOVE this post! I love the title and the picture and the teaching. Even the post itself is teaching the technique of writing a successful blog. A perfect package!

  2. I love this also. Thanks Edie for teaching me how to be a better writer and a more effective communicator. I will always appreciate all that you do for me and all writers.