This post is an excerpt from my book about writing and workshopping, My Life As an Armadillo, available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover editions around the world.
When we begin our writing journey, other writers invariably advise us to “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s easier said than done, and the terminology is to blame. After all, aren’t writers engaged in the art of storytelling, not story showing? How can we tell stories if we can’t tell anything? What does this advice really mean?
In January 2018, I took a writing course from Australian author, coach, and publisher Joanne Fedler, and she put her finger on the heart of this matter. Joanne challenged the class to stop writing about a feeling and instead write from a feeling. One of her methods involved identifying how an emotion can be communicated in sensory, physical terms. In other words, what does a given emotion look like? What does it taste, sound, and smell like? What would it feel like if we could touch it?
By describing an intangible emotion in tangible terms, we create a story where readers experience the feeling for themselves instead of simply reading a report about it. Joanne used the word “report” in her discussion about this method, and it was an eye-opening moment for me.
Consider sentences such as “He felt sad” or “Susan was annoyed”. These are reports about a character’s emotional state. They tell us information, but they don’t generate any feeling inside us. If we don’t experience a feeling, we don’t engage with the story.
Readers want to take an emotional journey, not read a report about someone else’s journey. This is the central idea behind “Show, Don’t Tell.” Telling means reporting about feelings instead of communicating them in a way the reader experiences first-hand.
Rather than “Show, Don’t Tell”, I suggest we say, “Immerse, Don’t Report.” We want to immerse our readers in a world they feel and emotionally respond to. We have several tools in our writing toolbox to achieve that goal: appealing to the senses, describing body language, and eliminating adverbs.
Joanne’s method of appealing to the senses forces us to consider how an emotion colors our physical experience of the world. Two people can observe the same event but draw totally different interpretations based on their emotional states.
Films achieve a version of this effect using soundtracks. For example, a simple shot of a sunset can elicit completely different emotions depending on the music in the scene. The musical score can make the sunset appear joyous or foreboding, triumphant or tragic.
Our emotional state affects the physical world in the same way. One person might view a bustling sidewalk full of people as an exciting opportunity to mingle with others and make friends while navigating the boundless adventure of an unfamiliar city. Another person might view the same scene with crippling anxiety about jostling shoulders with strangers in potentially dangerous territory. Based on our character’s emotional state, we can describe the same scene in totally different ways.
To practice writing about this difference, take a photograph and write about it from opposing emotional perspectives. For example, take a photo of the Grand Canyon and write about it from the perspective of a character who is excited to explore it. Then write from the point of view of a character who is terrified of being lost inside it.
In each case, refuse to report these feelings. Instead, focus on how the character’s emotional states color her perceptions of the physical environment. Do the rock formations rise triumphantly toward the sunlit sky, or do they loom like a menacing maze of stone? Do clouds grace the edges of the landscape like puffs of cotton, or do they smother the horizon in obscurity? It depends on what emotional state our character brings to the scene.
Sensation refers to the immediate response of our sensory receptors (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, fingers, skin) to basic stimuli such as light, color, sound, odor, and texture.
Perception is the process by which people select, organize, and interpret these sensations. The study of perception, then, focuses on what we add to these raw sensations to give them meaning.—Michael R. Solomon; Consumer Behavior, 12th Ed., 2016.
Let’s consider another tool: body language. Again, we are rooting the emotional world in the physical world, but here we examine how characters move their bodies and interact with their immediate environment. To illustrate the point, let’s discuss cats.
We can infer all kinds of things about a cat’s emotional state from observing her body language. A hunched back, fur standing on end, and a snarling face show us the cat senses a threat and has adopted a defensive posture. Rolling on her back with her belly exposed and her paws curled shows us the cat trusts us to give affection without harming her. Even the way a cat wags or flicks her tail shows us whether she is calm or agitated.
Now, let’s consider how a cat interacts with her environment. When she leaps onto a narrow ledge, we sense her confidence in her own agility and power. When she stretches out on a high tree branch for a nap, we understand she feels safe from enemies or predators in her chosen spot. When she bats her paws at bugs or streams of water, we sense her curiosity about the world, and her willingness to mess with things just to find out what they do.
Regardless of our characters’ species, we need to find ways to communicate feeling through physical action. Many writers are stuck in a rut of boring actions such as sighing, head nodding, head shaking, eye widening, and eye rolling. These have been done to death, and I am sick of reading about them. We need to find more ways to communicate emotions.
As an exercise, take a single emotion and come up with ten ways a character’s body language communicates it. Embarrassment, for example, might involve a character’s fixing her attention on the floor, shrinking away from other characters, stuttering, blushing, having watery eyes, suddenly being silent, running away, shoving her hands in her pockets, kicking something on the ground, or fidgeting with something in her hands. Which one best fits your character?
The way you choose body language immerses readers because they see an action and must derive meaning from it. This is why I don’t much care for the advice “Show, Don’t Tell.” What is most important is how we choose what to tell. If we tell the reader the facts about body language and interaction with the environment, then we trust the reader to understand character emotions without our needing to report on them.
This brings us back to the union of style and substance. If the substance of our story is emotional, we don’t want to undermine it by using stylistic choices that make it a mere report. We need to trust readers to draw their own conclusions, and I feel that treating narration like a camera is the best way to go: Use the camera to observe action, and let readers bring themselves to the story to understand the emotional landscape.
This is why experienced writers advise us to avoid using adverbs. Adverbs are a shortcut that allow the writer to indulge in a lazy lack of description. For example, consider the sentence “Susan nervously handed him the keys to the car.” What’s missing here?
We’re missing details that communicate Susan’s nervousness. Did her hands shake? Did she fumble with the keys or drop them? Did her palms sweat? Did her heart race? Any of these descriptive facts communicate nervousness and paint a more vivid picture than an adverb that reports Susan’s emotion.
By adding action and description instead of using shortcuts, we create a rich and emotion-laden world readers can enter with our characters, a world where they experience emotion for themselves instead of reading a report.