Show, don’t tell is probably the first piece of advice you’re given when you learn to write stories. It certainly was for me.
For such a long time, I didn’t really know what it meant. Perhaps it was how my literal mind worked. I would think to myself, how can I show you something with words? Surely, I can only tell you. But as my skills developed and my understandings evolved, it began to make sense. In the end, we all have our own interpretations. But for me, showing is dramatising the action. I imagine myself as a movie director on a set, or as an invisible character in the room, watching everything unfold. Then I relay back what I see to the reader. And I try not to miss any details. All that’s then needed is a pair of scissors to cut away the fat.
But that’s great for descriptive writing. Emotions and senses, I believe, require a slightly different approach, or maybe just a different perspective.
For my own novel, I knew I had the physical action all taken care. I’m a visual writer, and I know what my strengths are and where my own confidence lies. The flip side of this, however, is that I know my weaknesses. And those are emotions and senses. Just so happens, the Ultimate Novel Writing Course had a whole month dedicated to this.
Determined to overcome this and grow as a writer, I took another look at my main character. Now that I knew him, having fleshed him out in previous months, I wanted to dig deep and imagine all the emotions he would be feeling. He’s physically strong, seemingly fearless, or so he would have you believe, and he hides his weaknesses, even from the reader. But his emotions will be there, fighting to get out, and this will make him react in certain ways, and it will make him pick up on certain things. These emotions will drive him through the novel. I just had to show them, even hint at them—especially if my protagonist was feeling particularly stoic.
Early on in my novel, my protagonist meets a woman. At first, he doesn’t give it much thought. It is something to pass the time, and he suspects she feels the same. But it made me think about what he would actually do. He liked this woman. He wanted to see her again. But he had a past that made that complicated, while he had a present that made that dangerous. Yet actions unfold that impact on her, and he decides to help. Not just because she is a damsel in distress, but because he feels it’s the right thing to do, perhaps the only thing to do. Through his actions, and his own internal thoughts, such as missing her, worrying about her, his anticipation of seeing her again, I had him behave true to his emotions.
But to really sell this to the reader, I focused on the nuances of emotions. My protagonist spends a lot of time in a fight for survival. Early on, he maybe doesn’t feel the threat as being a threat to his life, but he knows there is a lingering danger. His mood reflects this while keeping true to his character. Yet there has to be a change when the situation changes. I played with this by altering the dialogue when he meets this woman, making it more excitable, more jovial, more relaxed. And I altered his observations. For example, instead of seeing the dark clouds ahead, he saw a sky full of energy and excitement. Suddenly he’s an optimist! Changing the tone and texture of the writing can let the reader know of the shift in mood, too. To seasoned readers, it will be obvious. To light readers, it may only be felt. But when it all comes together, I hope the emotions are shown and not simply told.
Time will tell if I have solved this puzzle. But this month has helped start the process of cracking this particularly tough nut.
As always, I wasn’t alone in this. I had two group tutorials, a written report, a one-to-one session, and a monthly lead tutorial to help me get through it. So, no excuses, really.