Thursday, May 24, 2012

Not Telling But Showing: Emotion in Writing

Emotions are complex. They're Rorschach tests on people's faces. But conveying them through writing? That's harder. Much harder.

Take the following for example:

Jasper's birthday had arrived. Kayla and Simon were overjoyed, having never given up hope that their father would make it to this day. They hugged him tight and told him they were proud. His grandson brought in the birthday cake. Jasper grinned from ear to ear. He was alive. His family loved him. He beat cancer. Everything was perfect.

We could do that. It's easy. It's simple.

It's also cheating. And lazy.

How do I know? I did it. I do it. The first draft of my novel was riddled with simplistic emotional responses to external stimuli. Worse, I repeated the same images with the same characters. Over and over and over.

With few exceptions, fiction writers are called upon to show and not tell each emotion. Some of the tools we use to do this are dialog, setting, and descriptive action.

Let's revisit Jasper and his birthday cake:

Jasper's birthday had finally arrived. The other 364 days didn't matter. This one did.

In the small kitchen, the refrigerator hummed. The clock ticked. The other sounds slept. Still, the air buzzed. Kayla and Simon wrapped their arms around their father, squeezing their eyes shut. They transferred all their memories, all their life into the elderly man. 

Jasper never thought this day would happen. His doctors didn't either. But Kayla and Simon planned it anyway.

Seventy-five years old. The pancreatic cancer would take Jasper before this day, his oncologist had warned. Jasper proved her wrong.

A small boy shuffled into the room, biting his lip, and moving in slow jerks. He carried a perfectly shaped cloud of icing and delicate pastry. A candle-created bonfire illuminated the words "Only The Strong Survive."

Jasper didn't count the candles. He didn't need to.

"Happy birthday, Pop-Pop," the boy said after he set the cake down on the table.

"You did it, Dad," Kayla said, gripping his shoulder.

"We knew you would," Simon added.

After they all sang "Happy Birthday," Jasper lifted his fork with a steady hand. A strong hand. That first bite, that one chunk of bliss, came with sugar-infused victory.

Okay. We could find better tweaks. I'm sure you get the picture, though. Setting, dialog, and descriptive action will do a better job than simply telling readers what characters are feeling.

In this vein of showing and not telling, I'll bring up a new writer's reference that I've found helpful.
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have put together a wonderful writer's reference entitled The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression. What makes it so fantastic is that it not only helps describe emotions in a compelling way, but writers like myself can use this book as a tool to show emotions without merely telling readers what the emotion is. It helps avoid descriptive repetition as well. It's great during the first draft of a novel, especially when we are more prone to keep writing as opposed to mining our brains for that perfect turn of phrase. As a result, the rewrite is less taxing.

The book's table of contents easily identifies the desired emotion and then takes the reader to the relevant section. The authors intelligently divide each section into different categories that demonstrate different methods of conveying an emotion. For example, after locating "Sadness" in the Table of Contents, the reader is directed to the appropriate section where the emotion is defined and then separated into the following categories: Physical Signals, Internal Sensations, Mental Responses, and Cues of Acute or Long-Term Sadness. Each category then lists numerous examples. If the emotion is one that can escalate into another emotion, that's indicated as well. The authors also include helpful writer's tips to lend a bit more verisimilitude to a character's emotions.

If you've found other great writer's references, please leave a comment. I'd love to hear about what's out there.

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