Alright, so I actually bought a book about this from Half Price Books, but I’ve only gotten to the second chapter when I no longer had time for it. I’ve never gotten back to it, but I think I got the gist of what the book was trying to say (It was categorized by emotion, so if you knew one emotion you knew the principle that the author would apply to all other emotions). So, here is how you write better emotions!
First, show, don’t tell. “Golly gee,” you might say, “literally every writing advice column ever has said ‘show don’t tell.’ Why don’t you guys shut the fuck up about it already?” Well, I’m sorry, but we’re not going to shut up about it. It’s an important part of writing! Very important! Like, as important as air.
Some people don’t understand the “show, don’t tell” thing, so I’m going to explain it. It’s very simple. You show us what is happening, you don’t tell us. I think people get confused because you’re obviously telling us everything, that’s how the book is written, but that’s not what is meant by this.
Telling: Alice was a very nice girl. Everyone said she was nice, but it embarrassed her when they told her so.
Showing: Alice loved baking, so sometimes she would bake just for fun and take the cookies down to the homeless shelter to share. Everyone at the shelter would tell her how sweet she was, but that made her blush. She just wanted to make sure that everyone had a chance to eat something baked with love.
See? That second one made me tear up a little. Granted, my allergies are really bad and are totally 100% behind the tearing, but doesn’t the second one make you like her so much more? The author isn’t saying “Alice is nice, ACCEPT THIS AS REALITY” like some authors do *AHEMCOUGHCOUGH* STEPHANIE MEYERS *COUGHCOUGH* but she’s showing you how Alice is a genuinely nice person. You believe she’s a nice person, because she bakes cookies for the homeless.
Now, see what showing is verses telling? You can’t make a person feel what you want them to feel when reading your novel if you’re just telling them what to feel rather than making them feel it.
1. I was so sad. He broke my heart, now all I could do was cry. I would never be happy again.
2. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t sit still. It was like someone had carved out a hole in my chest. My heart ached, and it felt like something was missing. I felt like my eyes hadn’t been dry since he’d left. Why did he leave like that? He was my something special, the person who made me better. Could I ever smile without him by my side?
I’ll leave you to guess which is showing and which is telling.
One way to practice is to write poetry with short verses. You’ll learn to convey emotion better just because you know you can’t write “I am sad” in a poem. Here’s an example of how it would help:
I’m alone for the last time in the prison of my bed,
holding the tool for my escape.
The silence of the night holds no comfort for me,
and my dreams are filled with terrors.
The house is crawling with the past,
their ghosts constantly haunt me.
I close my eyes for the last time;
maybe I’ll see them again in another life.
Not gonna lie, just picked a poem at random from my poetry folder, I wrote this recently and didn’t really look back at it, I was like “hmmmm, did I write this?” Dur. I’ll post the full poem tomorrow, but here is how that would look if you were telling it in prose.
I lie in bed awake, a knife in hand. I can’t sleep for the nightmares. The house is filled with reminders of the past, always reminding me of the ones I’d lost. I close my eyes and slit my wrist, hoping I’ll see them again.
Obviously, there isn’t so much showing verses telling happening here, but the first one is definitely better at describing, though it’d need some better translation to prose to avoid being purple prose.
That’s about it for the overall lesson, but I’ll list eight (because I’m too lazy to do ten) common emotions and examples of showing verses telling for each one.
T: I was so angry at him! How dare he?
S: My fist clenched and I restrained myself from hitting him. He didn’t deserve to be hit, nothing so tame as that. If he died a thousand times it wouldn’t make up for what he did. How dare he?
T: I was so confused. Where was I?
S: I looked around at the street signs. None of them were familiar. Was I supposed to go up First Street, or down Peach? I needed to get to get to Platform 9 ¾, but I’d taken a wrong turn. Where the hell was I?
T: I’m so excited! Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back!
S: I had to restrain myself from jumping out of my seat. I watched as the seconds ticked by, just a few more minutes now! I listened impatiently as the professor ended class, and shot out as soon as he dismissed us. Pumpkin Spice Lattes were finally back, and I was going to get one!
T: I was so jealous. That bitch had the best hair.
S: She thought she was so great, with her perfect locks and her perky smile. Everyone knew that she wasn’t naturally blonde. She couldn’t be. No one naturally looked that good.
T: I was so lonely. I just wanted a friend.
S: I hugged myself silently. The other kids played on the other side of the playground, but I sat alone on the cold bench. When I invited them to my birthday party last week they laughed at me, so I didn’t ask to play now. I just wanted a friend. Why’d they have to laugh at me?
T: She was consumed with a passion she’d never known before. She had to kiss him everywhere.
S: She kissed him deeply. She wanted to hold him forever, but she couldn’t stop moving; his tongue made her squirm against him. She had to kiss him everywhere. His name was on the tip of her tongue, ready to spill out as he moved inside her.
T: He was resigned to working in an office the rest of his life.
S: He stared at the blinking line on the screen. He’d typed up his resignation letter, all he had to do was print and sign it. He sighed. What was the use? He was too old to get another job, but too young to retire. Without thinking about it, he deleted it and closed the document. Another ten years in the cube farm wouldn’t kill him.
T: The old man was sad. All his friends were dead.
S: He sat on his porch and watched the children play. He had children of his own, and grandchildren enough to fill his house twice, but he missed the conversation of his friends. Tom from high school, Allen from the factory. He lived next door to Greg for thirty-two years, but they were all gone now, nothing but tombstones and memories. His friends were all dead, and he was counting down the days until he could join them.
If you want to improve your skills, take the telling portions of all of those and write how you would show those emotions. Feel free to make a blog post about it and link to it in the comments!