Bring your fiction to life with emotion: An editor’s how-to guide
This is a post by Novel Publicity staff editor, Robb Grindstaff
I know I overdo the smiles and sighing etc. Could you give me an example of showing internal workings rather than expressing something external such as a sigh or blush? – Samantha, Australia
There are lots of ways that writers slip into ‘telling' (external) rather than ‘showing' (internal), especially when it comes to emotion. There are the obvious phrases such as:
Bob held the photo of his old friend, and he was sad.
That's telling. The writer is stating the fact, telling the reader what emotion Bob is feeling. Usually it is much more effective to show Bob's emotions rather than just stating the fact.
Sometimes when a writer wants to show the emotion, she will use an external sign of an internal response. Some examples of these external signs include smiles, frowns, sighs, shrugs, blushes, looks (such as stares and glares), and my all-time least favorite, the furrowed brow. I'm not even sure what a furrowed brow looks like or what it means, but I seldom see a manuscript that doesn't deploy at least two furrowed brows. If I'm editing your work, you can bet I will strike through it or suggest you find a different way to say it. I'll probably furrow my brow as I strike through that phrase.
Bob stared at the photo of his old friend. He sighed, furrowed his brow and began to cry.
This is now describing Bob's facial expressions, body language, gestures and other external physical responses to illustrate Bob's sadness. It's better than saying ‘Bob was sad,' at least most of the time.
Most of the time this happens when the writer is trying to show rather than tell, but it's only a halfway step. The writer is ‘telling' the reader what facial expressions the character is giving, and those facial expressions then ‘show' the emotion. It's still a step or two removed from the readers. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, just like there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘telling' the reader some things. It's all in when and how something is told or shown that makes the reader engage with the story and character. Sometimes “Bob was sad” is exactly the right sentence. Sometimes “Bob frowned” may be exactly the right sentence. Showing will generally take a lot more words, and maybe it's not important enough to spend any more than three words on the fact that Bob was sad.
But if Bob being sad is an emotional moment in which readers need to empathize with Bob, it's worth a few more words. Describing facial expressions, sounds or body language alone doesn't bring the reader into the character's emotions. Adding physical actions and responses can help show the emotion.
Facial expressions are external signs of sadness. It could also be written with physical actions and responses:
Bob's hand shook as he stared at the photo. He thought of his old friend, and his shoulders heaved with a sob.
Better, but it's still missing something – it's flat. It describes the physical actions and response. This sentence is part showing and part telling. The writer tells the reader that Bob's hand shook, that he stared at the photo, and that he started crying, all of which creates a ‘showing' scene. The reader is seeing the scene, better than “Bob was sad,” but the reader isn't feeling it first-hand. The reader is seeing the scene from the external, not the internal.
So let's revise again, and write the sentence from inside Bob's skin, inside his head, showing the scene through Bob's eyes.
The photo trembled in his hand as Bob remembered his old friend, and the image blurred behind his tears.
Not saying this is Pulitzer Prize stuff, but this last version shows the reader that Bob is sad. It paints a scene in the reader's mind, and the reader can feel Bob's reaction – his internal response. The external has almost been completely eliminated. This last version doesn't tell me if Bob is frowning or sighing. It doesn't even directly tell me that he is looking at the photo or that his hand is shaking or that he started crying. Those are external actions. Yes, all of those actions are there, but they aren't ‘told' or stated as a fact for readers. This version explores the internal response. It puts the reader inside Bob as his hand trembles, he remembers, and the photo blurs.
These can be trickier, but also easier to resolve, when writing in first person. The main thing to remember is that a first-person narrator does not see her own face to describe her smiles, her frowns, or her furrowed brows. A first-person narrator, like all of us in real life, don't usually notice when we sigh. But in first-person, or in a tight third-person, the character's thoughts, feelings, and internal monologue can be used to show emotions.
Below are a few examples from a manuscript draft with the original wording and suggested edits. All suggested edits are mere examples of one way the sentence might be revised. There are many different ways of saying something, and it's always up to the writer to come up with the best way that fits the writer's style, voice and story.
I shot her daggers and refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.
I refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.
Sometimes the external signs of an emotion can be eliminated completely, as the internal thoughts, actions and dialog show the emotion. I eliminated the ‘shot her daggers' phrase (a reference to the character giving a sharp glare). It's not needed. The rest of this paragraph carries the full weight of the emotion, the character's irritation.
The security guard looked me up and down. ‘You his mother or something?'
I glanced down at my suit, then back up at the guy. ‘Oh, sod off!'
The security guard eyed my business suit. ‘You his mother or something?'
‘Oh, sod off!'
I moved the reference to what she is wearing to the guard's actions rather than the character glancing down at her clothes. She already knows what she's wearing. Her words convey her reaction without her reviewing her own attire.
I blushed the same way I did every time David quasi-flirted with me, then realized how inappropriate it was to be reacting this way with a dead guy just meters away.
Every time David quasi-flirted like this, it awakened the giggly, embarrassed twelve-year-old who still lived inside me, completely inappropriate with a dead guy meters away.
The revise eliminates the blush but describes from an internal perspective what she was feeling, perhaps in a way that readers can relate to. It also eliminates the filter that tells readers the character ‘realizes' something rather than just letting the realization come through naturally.
I felt my forehead crease with surprise that the cop appeared to know me, and took a closer look at him. I may have come across him in my work, but nothing stood out.
How did this cop know me? I gave him a closer look. Maybe we'd crossed paths before, but nothing stood out.
This revise replaces ‘I felt my forehead crease' with the internal thought, ‘How did he know me?' That expresses her surprise from her internal thought rather than telling readers she was surprised and having the character describe the feeling of her own facial expression.
I sighed, slipped off my heels and trudged into the living room.
I slipped off my heels and trudged into the living room.
A simple elimination of the sigh. Slipping off her heels and ‘trudging' (a great verb in this sentence) captures her mood. One thing to remember is that most of the time, a person doesn't know when they sigh. Also, people sigh for a variety of reasons – sad, happy, satisfied, perplexed, confused, resigned, etc. Stating that a character sighs doesn't really say anything without some additional information to show the emotion. And once the additional info is there and the emotion is shown, the sigh becomes unnecessary.
I flashed him what I hoped was a beguiling smile.
None. This is a very specific action that the character does consciously for a reason. It is her conscious action of flashing a particular type of smile that is the important point of the sentence. There are always exceptions, like this one, where a smile, sigh, or a blush is the important action rather than only serving as an external sign of an internal emotion.
The bottom line – get inside the character's skin, inside his or her head, and tell the story from the inside out, internal thoughts and emotions and perspective, rather than external only. Make your readers feel it as if they are the character rather than watching the character or being told about the character. It draws readers into your character and your story much more convincingly.
About this post's author:
In addition to a career as a newspaper editor, publisher, and manager, I’ve written fiction most of my life. The newspaper biz has taken my family and me from Phoenix, Arizona, to small towns in North Carolina and Texas, and from seven years in Washington, D.C., to five years in Asia. Born and raised a small-town kid, I’m as comfortable in Tokyo or Tuna, Texas. My first novel, Hannah’s Voice, debuted January 2013, and two more novels are in the works for 2013-14. I also edit fiction and non-fiction books for authors from around the world. It helps that I’m fluent in five languages: U.S. English, U.K. English, Canadian English, and Australian English, plus my native language, Texan. Connect with me via my website, Facebook, Twitter, or Evolved Publishing. I'm also a staff editor for Novel Publicity!