Tuesday, July 19, 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!

PS. If you feel like you're having a déjà vu moment, you are. This is a repost from January. This subject came up at one of our local writers groups (AnAuthor World) this past week when my good friend, Vonda Skelton was teaching Five Fatal Flaws of Fiction. Since I'm traveling, teaching this week I thought it would be a good time to revisit!


  1. I'm glad you re-posted it, Edie. A new writer myself, I'm still working on this (I think it's getting better though.)Between you and Vonda,and Pam, I think I'll get there, even though it'll take time.

  2. Edie, this post brings back memories of our early critique group years. We often struggled with this concept as we were each writing our first books. I remember many days, sitting around the kitchen table, whining about what a silly concept this was--as if we knew what made good writing!

    And although we both still have much to learn (after all, good writers are always learning how to be better writers), it's such a joy to look back and see the journey we've traveled...step by step, year by year.

    I'm thankful we both stuck with it!

  3. I struggle with this. The examples are really helpful.

  4. I have problems with this all the time. Thanks!

  5. Ellen, Stacy, & Ashley, I'm glad this post has helped clarify things a little. I encourage you to take what Vonda said to heart--you're all going to be where we are--actually way ahead. And it will come much sooner than you expect!
    Blessings - E

  6. I'm very new so here goes-bear with me and I'd LOVE feedback!
    Ex. #1
    Susan's brow furled, unbidden tears slipped down her cheeks as she whispered, "what have I done?"

    "Hello? Who's there?" Jenny's heart raced wildly as she wiped her palms on her jeans. The noise above was moving menacingly closer. The stairs creaked a warning...where was she to hide?
    Thank You!!

  7. Lily Sue, Bravo for jumping in! You did very well. I don't have ANY suggestions for the first example, I think it's letter perfect.
    I do have a couple of suggestions for the second one. You don't need "wildly" because you've done a good job of showing us her emotion and wildly is implied very well. Also, "was moving" is a passive tense, instead I'd just use moved. You also don't need the adverb "menacingly" again, you've implied that already with good writing.
    Over all - you did VERY well!!! Thanks for chiming in.

  8. Thanks Edie! I need a lot of practice, and as I read through I can see my mistakes....but that is typical me....often I rush through without investing as much thought as I should. I will keep practicing! I love your blog and appreciate the helpful information.