Today is the 3rd and final installment in the Show Me; Don’t Tell Me series.
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.
In this last section of the series on showing vs. telling, we’re going to tackle emotions and how to write them vividly.
Another way authors TELL and not SHOW is through the forms of the word ‘feel.’ Consider the following sentences:
- She felt tired.
- He felt the meeting could have been better prepared.
- She felt left out of the day’s activities.
Do you see how these are TELLING? Remember to ask yourself, how tired was she? Being tired could range from a simple yawn to forcing one’s self to walk upstairs to go to bed. Again, it is important to SHOW the reader more depth.
These could be rewritten in the following manner:
- Every muscle in her body ached, and she wished she could slither into bed and go to sleep.
- Had the presenter brought handouts and used an overhead projector, the meeting would have been more interesting for Barry.
- As she watched the others involve themselves in the many activities planned for the day, her heart longed to participate.
Masking emotions with strong verbs:
I recently had a client whose work, for the most part, contained vivid word pictures that SHOWED me as a reader what took place in each scene, however, when it came to emotions, she used an unusual technique. After studying these for a while, I came to realize they were TELLING in disguise. Here are a few examples of what she wrote:
- Fear slammed into him.
- Anger strangled him.
- Fear shot through him.
- Fright raced through the boy.
- Fear grew in the teen.
- Doubt and fear rose in Kevin’s chest.
This type of descriptions continued through the entire book. While the verbs create the illusion that these are powerful sentences, they really don’t SHOW the reader anything about the fear, anger and doubt the boy felt at that particular time. After reading a few of these, they became annoying to me, and that’s when it dawned on me that this author was merely TELLING the reader the boy was afraid.
When tempted to write ambiguous statements like this, ask yourself if this SHOWS you HOW afraid, or doubtful or angry the character is. If it doesn’t give you a clue as to the physical and mental associations with the emotion, then it is TELLING and must be changed.
The most important thing we as readers want from writing is to experience it. When editing a work of fiction, if you are unsure whether a certain passage of writing is TELLING, there are some things you can ask yourself that will help you determine if you should bring it to the author’s attention:
- Is the author allowing the reader to ‘see’ what’s going on in this passage, or are they merely telling us?
- Does the passage sound more like the author is telling us something? If so, can you bring more action into the section to help the reader better understand what a particular character feels?
- Is the author merely naming emotions instead of conveying them through action?
- Does the author give us information on how deep an emotion is?
- Is the author giving the illusion of a powerful sentence instead of actually showing depth?
- Is a character telling someone else what that character already knows?
In conclusion, while there are times an author must TELL the readers something, SHOWING means having characters do things that stimulate the readers’ interest. It renders those scenes more visual and lets us ‘see’ what happens firsthand.