By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund
Show not tell. Nowadays that message is hammered into writers' heads. And for the most part that's true. We need to paint a vivid picture in our reader's minds by having our characters act out the story on the stage of our pages, rather than simply narrating.
After all, we wouldn't go to a theater production and expect a narrator to read the play from the sidelines while the characters simply stand on the stage silently. No, we expect the characters to act out one scene after another, with perhaps a few narrations thrown in here and there.
However, emotions aren't always easy to show every single time. But in our age of show versus tell, instead of "sinning" by telling the emotion, many authors leave it out and cross their fingers hoping readers will figure it out on their own.
The trouble with such an approach is that it often confuses readers or leaves them feeling empty, unconnected, and unsatisfied.
A story needs emotional energy for our readers to relate to the characters and story on a deeper level. But how do we know when to show our character emotions and when it's time to tell?
I don't know that I have a straight answer. There's not a formula for how much to show versus tell. I actually think some of it is intuitive to the story. As I've tried to analyze my style and how I write, I've realized that I don't really think through my decisions for when to show versus tell. I just kind of know when the story needs more and when it doesn't.
But . . . if I had to break down the showing versus telling of emotions, I would say that the majority of time we should strive to SHOW our characters emotions. And we can do that in several ways:
• Body language: For example rather than telling our readers that our character is angry, we can show our character glaring or narrowing her eyes. Or if our character is nervous, we can have her biting her lip and concealing a gasp.
• Dialogue: If our character is angry again, we can have her shouting in the dialogue or perhaps being passive-aggressive with what she's saying. If she's nervous, we can sprinkle her dialogue with terse, short sentences or stuttering.
• Action: Once again, if our character is angry, we can have them stomp across the room and slam the door on their way out of the room. Or if they're nervous we can have them hide in a closet or bolt every lock on their doors and windows.
• Internal monologue: If our character is angry, we can show the thoughts running through their head, something like: If only I had enough nerve to slam the door in her face. Or if she's nervous she could think something like: My mamma always told me there was no such thing as ghosts, but what else could be out there?
As always, we should attempt to make the emotion clear from the context, and often that can happen when we're using some combination of body language, dialogue, action, and internal monologue that all work together to convey the emotion.
For example, if our character biting her lip doesn't convey the emotion were striving after, then we can add in a sentence of internal narration that compliments it and makes the emotion stronger and clearer.
Usually the trouble comes when we're in a fast-moving part, or a scene with a lot of dialogue, or perhaps a scene with more backstory or exposition, and we can't take the time to show every emotion our character is feeling. If we do, we may end up with a 1000 page tome that's packed full of emotion being acted out, but that no one will want to read.
There are lots of ways to sneak in an emotion so that the reader doesn't realize we're telling them. Here are just a few techniques:
• Sparingly use adjectives or adverbs: An angry retort or voice dripping with sarcasm.
• Personify the emotion or link it with a simile: Bitterness sucked at the lining of her stomach like a leech.
• Have the character name the emotion in her internal monologue: She was so mad she wanted to smash something bare-handed. If only she had enough nerve.
My Summary: In the modern hype to show not tell, writers often go to the other extreme. They take the technique too literally, which often leaves readers guessing how the character feels. If we want our readers to feel joy and sorrow, heartache and disappointment, and the gamut of other emotions during our stories, then we must make sure those emotions are visible in our characters.
What about you? What are some other techniques you use for showing character emotions? Have you noticed writers going to the extreme with showing versus telling?