Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wednesday Writing Workout: Let the Showing Begin

 I think all of us TeachingAuthors have had at least one post on the topic of "show don't tell." It is the flaw I find most often in my students' writing. It's also the hardest to explain. When we relate a story orally, 99% of the time we are telling. We talk about a series of events, heavy on the action, light on the emotion, and almost always leaving out the thought process that led to the action.

Today's post is not so much an exercise as a way to brainstorm your way from "telling to showing" with the aid of my new favorite writing tool, The Emotion Thesaurus:A Writer's Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (CreateSpace Independent Publishing
Platform, 2012). The book is a listing of every possible emotion with a list of physical manifestations of the emotion, mental responses and other more subtle aspects of the emotion.  I have found what I have long needed, a blueprint for brainstorming "show don't tell."

When I am critiquing, I get a lot sentences like "Carol was mad. She burst into tears." But is Carol really mad?  Maybe she is frustrated. Or depressed.  Or hurt. Any of these emotions could cause tears. Mad is one of those "deadweight" words that just doesn't tell you a whole lot. Let's get specific, shall we?  Let's decide that Carol is hurt. Someone has said something nasty to her.  How can we show that Carol is hurt?

I have a pet peeve about crying in writing.  Once or twice a book is all I will allow myself. That includes all forms of sobbing, wailing, sniffling, crying, blubbering, etc. I have read stories where someone is doing one of the above every other page. A little bit of tears goes a long way. By the time you get to the third time someone is crying, it loses its impact. Your reader will either become annoyed or worse, find it funny. Not the effect you want.

So back to poor, hurt Carol. How would you act if your feelings were hurt.  Would your eyes water? (Not tear up...water)?  Might your throat grow tight? Bite your lips, stutter a reply, leave the room to keep from saying something you'll regret?

What should my body language look like? I could exit the room with my head held high (to put a good face on the situation). Once out of sight,, my shoulder should droop, my head hang, I might slump against a wall, or drop into a chair.

Anyone who has ever had one of my critiques is familiar with the words "What is he/she thinking/feeling?" We need to get inside Carol's head for the scene to have the final emotional impact. What is going on in her head? I'll bet she's wondering "Gee what did I do to cause that to happen?  What did I ever do to her?" Depending on how hurt she is, maybe she feels that her heart is actually breaking. Maybe she is so taken aback she feels stunned. Perhaps she feels that time has stopped. Or that she is moving in slow motion.

Of course you wouldn't use all of these details. Think about Carol, and choose a few that you think fit how you know apply to Carol. (After all, Carol is your invention. Let's try it, shall we?

     Carol could not believe what Mr. Ellis had said. With her head held high, and impeccable posture, she turned on her heel, and left the room, her heels clicking across the linoleum. Once in the hallway, she threw herself against the ladies' room door, and lurched inside. She slumped over the sink, splaying her face with cold water to keep the tears at bay and force the lump in her throat to dissolve.  What did I do to Mr. Ellis? she wondered.  He has always liked my work. I've always been a good employee.

    Then she knew. Jennifer. Jennifer in human resources. Carol and Jennifer had never really gotten along.   Jennifer must have said something  about her work to Mr. Ellis.  But what?  What did Jennifer say?

OK, so this isn't Tolstoy, but you have to admit it says a lot more than "Carol was mad. She burst into tears."

I am not telling everyone to run  right out and buy The Emotion Thesaurus but I certainly recommend giving it a look. It will give you a new perspective on "show, don't tell."

     Don't forget to enter our current giveaway for a copy of Nancy Cavanaugh's debut middle grade novel This Journal Belongs to Ratchet (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky). See Esther's student success story for details.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman 


Jill said...

Well, you've made me WANT to run out and buy a copy, Mary Anne. Great post!

Pen N. InkBlog said...

I have their site bookmarked. I love their work.
Thanks for the post.

Angela Verges said...

Very helpful information. Thanks for the post.

suebe said...

I have to second Mary Anne's recommendation. This book has gotten me out of more than one writing fix and broadened my character's response from chewing on his poor bottom lip.