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Show and tell

Show the readers everything, tell them nothing. ― Ernest Hemingway

Writers are frequently admonished to show not tell, but what does that mean exactly? I’m no master yet, but Mary Buckham’s recent Body Language and Emotion class has helped a lot.

(Seriously, if you get the chance to take anything she teaches, spend the money.)

Think of the movies. The best actors are those who can convey their thoughts and emotions without saying a word. In a well-written book, the characters do the same thing.

In my own work, I have whole scenes where the characters talk and move around the imaginary space, but the scenes feel like they move too fast. They're flat and lacking emotion.

I don’t want over-the-top drama, and there are times when it makes sense to just “tell” and move on, but part of the reader’s experience is the vicarious emotion of the characters. If we don’t give them that, they won’t come back for more. To get them involved, we not only need to tell them what the characters are doing, but more importantly, show how the characters are doing it.

Here’s an example of telling:

Jenny gave him a nervous glance. “I didn’t take it.”

Gavin didn’t believe her. He could always tell when she lied.

The passage above gets the point across, but I’m telling you what kind of look she gave him, telling you that he didn’t believe her, and telling you why. Wouldn’t it be stronger and more interesting if I showed you what each character was feeling and let you name the emotions yourself?

Here’s my effort to rewrite with nonverbal cues to show you what’s going on:

Jenny met his gaze briefly, then dropped her focus to the woolen rug near her feet. She tucked an arm across her stomach and smoothed her skirt repeatedly with her palm. “I didn’t take it.”

Gavin snorted and shook his head. She gave her away her lie with every move.

That could probably use an editor’s red pen, but still, I think the second passage is richer. It involves the reader more. I didn’t name a single emotion, but I’ll bet you figured them out anyway.

Next time your hero crosses a room, show the reader how he does it. Instead of merely walking he could stomp, stalk, or skip even. Don’t let the heroine hold a letter in her hand just to break up a paragraph of dialogue. Have her fold it into careful pleats, squeeze it in her fist, shred it, or clasp it to her chest.

Combine those actions with a few other telling, er, showing moves and your story will come to life.

We have to move our characters around their world—what Mary Buckham calls choreography—so why not make those moves mean something?

Image credit: Kuroda Seiki [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Emotional outlet

The Bookshelf MuseHow many ways can you think of to express your character’s anxiety? His happiness? Her anger?

Does your antagonist always look behind him? Does your hero clench his fists every time? Does your heroine’s mouth flatten over and over?

A traditional thesaurus may not help when you want to describe the actions and reactions of your characters in different ways. What you need is the Emotion Thesaurus, brainchild of The Bookshelf Muse bloggers Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

It’s awesome!

Not only do they have lists of ideas for showing a character’s emotion through action, they have thesauri for Settings, Weather, Colors and Textures, and Character Traits.

This is writerly gold.

I've gotten to the point where I just leave the site open in my browser when I'm writing. Bookmark it now and you'll thank me later.

Got any great resources up your fingerless mittens? Please share!

Space and Time (Bonus Friday post)

You can also catch this post over at Romance Magicians

What do Einstein and writing guru Dwight V. Swain have in common? The theory of relativity. Einstein once famously said, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity.”

Dwight V. Swain, in his epic tome on writing, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, said, “In writing, you translate tension into space: The more tense the situation as your focal character experiences it, the more words you give it.”

I don’t know why, but that one short passage in Swain’s book stopped me short with its brilliance.

Have you ever heard Captain Sullenberger talk about his experience landing flight on the Hudson River? When he listens to the flight recorder playback, the whole event takes place in mere minutes. And yet while he was going through it, time seemed to slow down. The volume of information and emotions he processed in that short period of time made it seem many times longer than the reality.

So if we follow Swain’s advice, we can give our readers an easy clue about how momentous an event is by how much space (i.e. relative time) we allot to it in our story.

To some degree, I’m sure we all do this instinctively. But I’m wondering if maybe some of my scenes that fell a little flat did so because I didn’t give them their due. Maybe I let too much of the experience happen “off screen”, thus shortchanging the reader and my story.

Next time I can’t figure out why an important scene isn’t working, I’ll check to see if I gave it enough space and time.

Get passionate

You thought this post was going to be about writing sex scenes didn’t you? 😉 Sorry, but I’m talking about passion in the larger sense as defined by the Mac dictionary: strong and barely controllable emotion.

What are you passionate about? Global warming? U.S. involvement in the Middle East? Sea turtles? Education? Adoption? Animals? School arts programs? Immigration?

Pick your passion—no matter what side of the fence you’re on—and find a way to write about it. I don’t mean a position paper or a letter to your editor, though you could. I mean imbue your character with that passion and build a story around it. Or structure a book or series around a group that fights for or against your cause. In researching opposing viewpoints, you might even see the subject in a new light, and it should be easy to make the sparks fly between your characters if they’re on opposite sides of an issue.

Laura Griffin’s Tracers series features a forensics lab that’s dedicated to processing all crime scene evidence and helping law enforcement catch violent criminals. She came up with the idea after she found out that much forensic evidence is never processed or entered into a crime database. She took her frustration and created a fictional group with the passion to make it happen.

The late Michael Crichton made a fortune writing books about what could go wrong with the research he read about in scientific journals. Jurassic Park, Timeline, and Prey hit a chord with readers because he took a stand on a topic and built a story around it.

Robin Cook did the same thing for medical topics. Just try to eat a fast-food hamburger after reading Toxin. I dare you.

If emotion is the key to memorable characters and keeper-shelf books, then by writing about a topic that gets you emotional, you might just find that all-important element easier to write. And an interesting topic makes the research more fun.

So, figure out what shocks, angers, or delights you, and build a story around it. You might even teach your readers something, and get them passionate too. Good luck!

This post was simulcast at the Romance Magicians blog for the Southern Magic RWA chapter:

Emotional intelligence

My CP is constantly harping and nagging…ahem, I mean gently reminding me about the need to infuse my writing with more emotion. And, she's right. In my head, the characters are going through such turmoil and angst, but I often forget to pour that emotion onto the page for the reader to see.

Some of this probably stems from the dominance of my left brain. Hello? Programmer/engineer here. I once looked back through an old diary that I kept sporadically in middle and high school. It read like a catalog of events rather than an emotion-filled life. BO-RING.

Fictionalized example: “XY [the boy I had a crush on for five years who never noticed my existence] started dating XX today. I broke my finger at soccer practice, and then we had lasagna for dinner.” Seriously? Aren't teenaged girls supposed to be the queens of drama?

Good grief. What am I, a robot? When I think back on those moments, many of them were very emotional for me. Why the heck didn't I put it on paper? I'm sure I could analyze the reasons for you ad nauseam (yes that's spelled right), but I'll spare you.

What my diary should have been like: “XY smiled at me yesterday when I loaned him a piece of paper in Chem. He's so gorgeous. I wish I was brave enough to flirt with him, but he only likes the popular girls. My heart cracked in two when I found out he's dating XX. I wanted to throw up because she's such a bitch and he deserves better than her.”

Sigh. All I know is that I'm now combing through Counting on You and Floater, looking for those important scenes where my writing fell flat.

My stomach is clenching at the thought, my head spinning with ideas as I eagerly scroll through the pages…

The Daily Squirrel: wedding ring

Mike pawed through the dresser drawer like a dog digging a fresh hole. The bride's ring had to be in there somewhere. Sweat dripped down his forehead and stung his eyes. Ben had trusted him for the first time in years, and he'd screwed it up. Again. Socks and underwear flew through the air, littering the floor and the bed as Mike dug deeper. Finally, his hand closed around a small, velvet box stuck against the back of the drawer. He let out the breath he'd been holding and collapsed to the floor, the box tucked tightly against his pounding heart. Even if he had to sleep with it, the ring would not leave his sight again until he put it into the groom's hand.