Daily Archives: November 14, 2015

Show, don’t tell

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, where people are advised not to tell the reader that a character feels a certain way. Instead, the writer is told to write the character in such a way that it will be obvious to the reader how the character feels. This is great advice. This is a way to inject some real life and vividness into your story. And guess what! It actually adds words, even when you’re not doing it just to try to be wordy for the NaNo. Bonus!


Sad girl sitting on a bench

I’m sure you’ve seen (or even written) a description as basic as this: “He was sad” or even “He had a sad look on his face.” Of course if your character is sad, you want to convey that to the reader; it’s part of a story. But doesn’t it kind of sound like you’re writing a dry history book, and not a very good one, at that? “When his brother died in 1917, he was sad.” Sure, it’s a fact, and it happened. But seriously—big deal. Is this some character whose story is really so boring that it merely needs a few facts pointed out? Or is this a character whose living, breathing actions and feelings should be leaping from the page so that the reader is living that sorrow right along with him?

If that’s the case, then show the reader exactly what the character does and looks like as he is sorrowing. Don’t make your characters’ actions into just a mere recitation of stark facts. (“And then he did this and then she felt that and then she looked this way and then he felt like this…”) Make those characters live!

You have to ask yourself certain questions. What does a person do when he’s experiencing great sorrow? (And that’s a better word, by the way, “sorrowful” instead of “sad.” The word “sad” does have its place, but your selection of nouns and adjectives is as important as the showing of your character’s actions.) Let’s brainstorm about what a character might look like and behave like if he or she is sorrowful.

Sad young man sitting on an empty floor

How does he or she look?

Here are some things about the sorrowing person’s appearance that you might draw from when you are trying to convey how sorrowful your character is.

  • The person’s shoulders might slump.
  • The person might have downcast eyes, not really lifting their eyes to look too directly at anybody, as though it’s just too much effort even to do the work of simply raising their eyes, let alone anything else.
  • Naturally, there might also be tears in those eyes. But do they simply roll down the person’s cheeks? Might they possibly be retained, unshed, giving the eyes a moist sheen?
  • Are the eyes red from weeping? Are they even a bit swollen?
  • Is the person pale from grief? Are their cheeks slowly reddening, as though from fever or as though the redness of their eyes almost appears to be leaking out?
  • Is the person’s hair dishevelled?
  • Did the person get dressed this morning? Or are they still in their pajamas or jogging sweat pants? Did they get some bad news just as they came out of the shower, so that either there’s still a forgotten towel wrapping up their hair or the towel is gone, but the hair dried in kind of lank, uncombed ringlets?

How does she or he behave?

What does this person do that might make an outside observer look on and say, “Oh man, that person must really be grieving”?

  • The person might also drag his or her feet when walking across the room.
  • Perhaps the person sits kind of stiffly, as though trying to hold himself or herself together.
  • If that’s the case, the person might not respond to comforting acts or gestures, because to respond in any way might be to open up to much and finally lose all control.
  • The person might also be holding something tightly—a handkerchief, a tissue, a set of keys, a small memento of the person who has departed, something like that—in kind of a tight grip, for a similar reason as above—to hang on and not lose control.
  • The person’s speech might also be very terse and clipped, again for the same reasons as above. Or he or she might be unable to speak more than a few words at a time without needing to dab the eyes, blow the nose, or swallow and take some deep breaths. There might be short moments of weeping in between sentences. And if there is weeping, then the redness of the eyes would of course gradually increase.


Not using THE word…

You’ve got a lot of detail to work with there. Now, here’s an example of the sort of paragraph I often give to the people whose stories I edit, to try to illustrate how you can convey your character’s sadness without once using a word that relates to sadness, sorrow, or grief.

He closed his eyes, the unshed tears bright on his lashes, and stumbled blindly across the room, shoulders slumping, until he met the edge of the table. He bent to press his hands flat on its surface, head hanging between his spread arms, the fringe of dark hair falling over his eyes, and he rasped, “Did…did she suffer?”

Sad manNotice that I never once told you he was sad. Or did I? I never used that adjective or any other adjective like that at all. But this character’s whole demeanor gave it away, didn’t it, from the blind stumbling to the raspy voice? That may still not be perfect writing, but I bet that if some random reader looked at that little paragraph, she would know instantly that this character, whoever he was, was pretty darned sad for some reason. (And by the way, did you notice how many more words it took to make that scene come alive than it would have taken just to say, “He had a sad look on his face”? Like I said—bonus!)

And remember my previous post about working descriptions into the action rather than making the reader pause to read a solid block of descriptive text before you finally get on with things again? The same thing applies here. Some of the character’s sadness was shown by the actions he took. The actions might be more subtle in a scene where you are trying to convey the character’s emotions (stumbling blindly over to a table is not quite as active or as dramatic as racing down a dark alley and skidding to a stop on the gravel), but you are still conveying action. The story is not standing still, waiting while the reader is filled in that the person is sad and then moving on again.

If you wanted more dramatic action, of course you could have indicated the character’s emotions with stronger actions too. If the unseen companion answers “Yes” to the character’s question about the woman or girl’s suffering, there’s nothing like showing wild grief by having your character suddenly sweep all the little glass bottles off the table and then cry over the many shards after the bottles all shatter on the floor. And you still won’t have to use the words “sad” or “sorrowful” or “grieving.”

…but choosing evocative words

If you’re not going to use “sad” or “sorrowful” or “grieving” (or other words that outright tell the reader the emotion that’s supposed to be felt), that means that you have to use the right descriptions and adjectives that will convey the emotion without talking about it so directly.

I mentioned the word “rasped,” which was how my character, above, asked his question. Just choosing that word instead of the mere word, “asked,” made an immense difference in how the question came across. This person can barely speak. In fact, he can barely walk—hence the word, “stumbled.”

Sad in abbeyOne of the keys to “showing” the reader the emotions of a character is choosing the right verbs to indicate the action and choosing the right adjectives to describe both the person and the action. What are some other words that might demonstrate just how gloomy and grieving this character is? One example is the word “choked,” which people often use to show that a grieving person can barely get her words out around the sobs in her throat. (I think that one is getting a bit overused, though.)

Other words that suggest or at least hint that a person might be sad: slumped, dismal, listless, shuffling, unseeing, somber, downcast. Mumble, gulp, quaver, tremble.

If you’ve done a fair bit of reading, you’ve come across a whole host of great words for all sorts of situations. Often, when you come to an emotional situation in your writing, one of those words will just spring into your mind as being precisely perfect for the action or description you want to convey. Or if you just can’t find a word that’s appropriate, well, that’s what a thesaurus is for. Pull down the old Roget’s and look up “speak” or “walk” or “eat” or “sad” or something else you want to show your reader—not tell—and you’ll run into such a rich resource of appropriate words that you might have trouble choosing just one.

One final thing to keep in mind is that when you show the reader what is going on in the story rather than telling him or her, you are actually paying the reader a compliment. He isn’t someone who needs things spelled out for him in stark words. She is not a reader who doesn’t recognize body language and social cues. Instead of feeding all the basic facts in a plain, dry way to your readers, you are trusting them to be capable of recognizing a basic human situation and the actions of a real, living, breathing character who is experiencing his or her life right before your readers’ eyes. So this is a strategy that will honor your readers while providing them with a story that is very much alive.

So not only can the “show, don’t tell” strategy build up your word  count while you’re doing the NaNo, but even more importantly, for the days after the NaNo when you are simply trying to write a good story and not be wordy for the sake of being wordy—this strategy brings your story to rich, vivid life. Your readers will thank you.

Woman in red leaning on a table

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