Show, don’t tell, your character’s emotions
Writers long to elicit an emotional response from readers. We want them to laugh and cry, we want to pull from them the same emotions we feel as we read our favorite books. Unfortunately, emotion is one of the hardest things to write.
New writers (and by that, I mean writers who have just recently decided to engage with writing on serious terms, not merely the young or inexperienced) often find themselves inclined to name emotions. For example, Ellen was glad when Frank came home. Or, sometimes resort to the poetic, Gladness washed over Ellen as Frank came home.
After a certain amount of reading and being told to “show, not tell,” we resort to describing emotions. What did gladness look like Ellen? “The lines in Ellen’s brow disappeared when Frank came home.” This habit tends to breed long passages of heavily descriptive prose. Frank’s face was red, his eyes spat fire-like glances back at Ellen. He clenched his teeth and felt tight anger welling up in the back of this throat. Too much of this sort of description of emotions becomes tedious.
Discussion of an emotion is seldom much better.
That’s all very clear. We understand that Frank is mad and we have a strong sense of why, but as a reader, I don’t feel mad on his behalf. We have explained away anything interesting about Frank’s anger.
If emotion isn’t evoked by writing descriptively about emotion, or by communicating the motivation behind an emotion, what tools are writers left with? The answer is that we use the same tools we use for everything else. Action, dialogue, character and setting, are paramount to creating emotion in your work.
We spend relatively little time thinking about emotions in our daily lives. Unless I am particularly angry, I don’t sit around contemplating the many facets of my displeasure. More likely, I go about my day, and my behavior is impacted somewhat by the emotions I’m carrying through it with me.
But that’s enough telling, let me show you what I mean. Give Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” a read. O’Connor has a particular gift for writing emotion naturally in a way that leaves the reader feeling bathed in the hatred, anger, anxiety or regret she’s trying to impress upon us.
The second and third sentences convey a certain lack of emotion; the arrival of a stranger created no concern, no anxiety for Mrs. Crater. In the next paragraph, the woman stands, with one hand fisted on her hip. O’Connor is giving us body language, and we can use that to infer certain things about the character and what she is feeling. Mrs. Crater is not pleased or frightened by the stranger’s arrival, but she may be irritated by his presence, and we get the feeling she is not planning for him to linger on the farm. We get all of that from a slide across her seat and standing with her hand on her hip.
O’Connor keeps us rooted in the action through the whole initial meeting with Mr. Shiftlet. The dialogue isn’t emotional, the characters aren’t expressing any feeling, but she hands us seeds that will grow into some anxiety. The old woman rocked without comment and the daughter watched the trigger that moved up and down in his neck. That word, “trigger.” It changes things, it’s a warning flag. This harmless tramp could be dangerous. We’ll have to keep reading to feed that bit of anxiety welling up within us. And sure enough, the conversation turns to marriage and the lens turns to the young girl, and our apprehension mounts. But the characters still seem cool and calm. They are developing agendas, and we’re starting to worry about the young girl who may become their victim.
Now here are some emotional words. Mr. Shiftlet is dissatisfied with the wedding. He tells us so, “That didn’t satisfy me none.” But he also squirms in his shirt and he looks morose. O’Connor gives us some figurative language, so she doesn’t have to tell us what morose and bitter looks like, and she doesn’t have to tell us why Mr. Shiftlet is dissatisfied.
O’Connor uses color and weather to help with the emotional feel of the story; the world is gray, until Mr. Shiftlet is making his getaway in the car, when the sky is a pale blue and he can “forget his morning bitterness.” She doesn’t tell us Mr. Shiftlet feels free driving away, the action is a forgetting of his earlier anger, and yet still, the footloose vibe is conveyed. Then, she addresses his emotion directly: He became depressed in spite of the car. It is a statement of the facts, and it isn’t intended to make us feel depressed. Readers are still feeling anxious for Lucynell, angry at Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater. The depression is developing the character, not the emotion of the story. That Mr. Shiftlet feels some remorse or sadness complicates his character, our interest is piqued because he is surprising us.
As a storm brews on the horizon, we get the hitchiker’s angry affront:
That “angrily” seems suspect, doesn’t it? Why doesn’t the boy just turn in his seat? Or turn quickly, or purposefully? He can turn any way he like, his anger is conveyed through the dialogue, through the jump out of the moving vehicle, not the manner of his turn toward Mr. Shiftlet.
What O’Connor does is a useful trick; she creates the emotions of the story through the action, by showing us what the characters do. She doesn’t translate the lines of their faces or interpret their emotional state, but she gives us a good idea of the feelings surrounding them. When she tells us explicitly about emotions, she’s doing so as part of the action, not to elicit a response from us. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” doesn’t leave readers depressed or angry, but rather conflicted. The emotion is driven by the things the characters do in their space.
Read through some of your favorite short stories. The southern writers, Faulkner and O’Connor and Eudora Welty, are masters at creating emotionally driven action. But all short stories, really, are creating emotion and tension without picking up the emotion and writing about it; they’re relying on the action, dialogue, characters and setting to help the reader feel something. And really, that’s what the majority of readers are seeking when they dig in to a story.
Try it in a short story you’ve written. Begin by striking attempts to create emotion by describing or naming a feeling. Then, consider how you can rewrite the existing action, or add new action, to convey the feelings you have been describing. Instead of telling your readers what happened on the face of a character holding back tears, tell us what he does, what the people around him do, or what the setting does.