7th Law of Joni’s Writing Bible

Thou shalt show the reader the emotions of thy characters.  Not tell them in a dreary way.

I think this topic may be revisited again someday because it is so very important and there are so many facets to this idea of “showing”.  Today I think I will focus on the very basics.  In elementary school we are taught to tack on an adverb to tell what a character in our story is feeling.  Even when reading children’s books today I see it done constantly.  Why?  It is done because children are too young to understand similes, analogies, alliteration, and word painting so authors are allowed to “tell”.  They also will not pick up on subtle hints of emotion from dialogue.  Also, these words are overused because children’s brains are unused to the written language, and need to be exposed to not only new words, but new emotions.  It is good practice. Here’s an example of what I mean.

Jack pulled Helen’s hair very hard.

Helen spun around to Jack.  “I hate you!” said Helen angrily.

This is blatant telling what Helen feels.

This kind of writing cannot be done in books beyond the children/juvenile realm.  Thankfully it appears less in Mid-grade and should be obliterated by YA and Adult fiction.  So how do we leave the telling and foray into the showing?  First, follow the previous lesson on superfluous adverbs.  In my short example above the “very” and the “angrily” are useless words.  Jack did something mean and Helen just shouted ‘I hate you’.  The words themselves showed us, and the exclamation point drove it home.  But even without an exclamation point (which should be used sparingly in your prose) we would still feel the anger because of the act by Jack and her dialogue.

Yes, that was very basic, but hopefully you got the idea.  Let’s move on to something more complex.  Showing emotion, to me, seems to be a marriage of the right dialogue, the right physical action or inaction, and proper alliteration and word painting.  Today, let’s focus on the right dialogue with the right physical action or inaction.

I hope you already see your characters as real people.  If not, use your imagination and try to visualize them.  What are they doing in the scene?  Let’s imagine that Helen is an adult of twenty-five and her fiance has just told her he just cheated on her.  What would she do?  What would you do?  What are the subtle ways a person can say “I hate you” even without saying the words.  This is where people watching can become very important.  Watch people flirt, fight, or laugh.  What are they doing?  What are they showing us?  In a fight, nostrils flare, teeth are bared, fists are formed, muscles are tensed, insults are cast, voices are raised, faces are reddened.  We have a never ending arsenal of words to draw on that will make the showing easier, and thus our reader will feel more connected to the story.  Nobody wants to be told what to feel.  We want to feel it with our characters.

I am no expert at this and I still find myself practicing this art.  I will use an excerpt from my own book.  How it “was” in my first copy and what it became.  (It is embarrassing to show a first draft of anything to anyone so be kind.)

“You screwin’ that kid?”  Carl suddenly said, his voice was thick with accusation.

“No,” Lila whispered.

Strangely, that was it.  No explosion.  This was not like her dad at all.

Okay, in the example I tell us.  Twice.  I beat us over the head with “His voice was thick with accusation” and “This was not like her dad at all.”  Cut both of those telling pieces and not only does it read better, but the less is more is visible.  You can feel more, insert yourself more into Lila’s thoughts.  Here is what the scene ended up becoming:

“You screwin’ that kid?” He turned to her.

Lila looked at the floor.  “No.”

“Then what the hell was that?”

Hopefully you can see that less is more.  Just from the dialogue and Lila’s action of looking to the floor, we see the accusation.  We feel the tension.  Don’t beat the reader over the head with it.  I guess it all boils down to the idea that a scene will mean more to the reader if they get to use their imagination and work for it just a little.

Good luck with this step in the editing Bible.