Monday, August 31, 2009

Emotions in Your Life: Show and Tell; A Lesson From the Master and Emotional Journals

We all hear about showing vs. telling; a common battle we writers must conquer. I know you've heard me talk about it here, several times. If you've not heard about this issue or you're new to my blog or writing, and you do not know what this means let me explain.

This is telling.

Mary was angry.

This is showing.

With clenched jaw, Mary spoke in staccato words, "You will never do that to me again!"

I didn't say Mary was angry in the latter example. I showed it. Which is better? You decide. Which makes you see the scene specifically, feel the emotion, experience the anger in a part of your body like Mary experienced it?

Forgive me for the repetition if I've already given this next example, but it is worth repeating because it was the moment this lesson resonated inside of me. My epiphany.

Eggs by Jerry Spinelli

...Their relationship came to be symbolized by a carrot. She left a fresh one, washed and peeled, next to his peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch each day. She was careful not to hound him about it. Only once did she mention that carrots were good for him, they supply vitamin A, and, as her own mother had told her time and again, they help one to see in the dark. The daily carrot became her last stand - one small, pitiful, final attempt to bond with her grandson. He never took a bite.

Frustrated, she worked up her nerve for a showdown. She said to him at lunch one day, "We used to have such good times together."

He went on munching his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The carrot, as usual, lay untouched on the table.


Munching. As if she weren't there.

She went away in tears.

Two days later, out of the blue during lunch, an answer arrived: "You were Nana then."

"She stiffened. She stood in front of him, looking down on the top of his head, the brown hair she once loved to muss. "Then? I still am Nana."


"No?" Something delicate inside her fell from an edge and shattered. She could not keep the tremble from her voice. "What am I now?"

He did not reply. He got up and left the kitchen. A half-eaten sandwich lay on his plate.

Sticking up out of the bread, like an orange dagger, was the uneaten

That, my friends is the best example of show don't tell. The pages I read where a light bulb not only went off, sirens sounded, blood rushed, and I said out loud, "Oh, I get it now!!!!" An aha! moment. We not only understood how David felt, but how the grandmother felt too, "...Something delicate inside her fell from an edge and shattered."

How does Jerry Spinelli do that, get there, show that, create those beautiful moments? I think he avoids using generalizations like,

"Who am I now?"
"The enemy," he said and left the table.

True, those words would sting to hear, say, and read, but how much better the surprise when we SEE that David saw his Nana as an enemy. The dagger stabbed his sandwich. It was powerful. So powerful that I still talk about it and write about it and probably will continue to do so forever.

I wanted to practice this in my own writing and so I created something I call my Emotional Journal. I've written about this before but today, I am going to share a snippet. Of course names are changed. The important thing is not to just retell an event that brought up an emotion in you. The important thing it to force yourself to say more, to show more, to make a reader feel what you felt by discovering in your own body where this emotion lived.

Then when you have to write a passage like this in your stories, you can draw from that. This is certainly not an example of fine, flawless writing. It is a journal, so I a do not edit, spellcheck, or search for the perfect word. It is a warm-up exercise to that days writing for my story. I think about my character and an emotion she might have to feel that day and then I mediate and try to remember when I've felt that way and try to describe it without generalizing.

Today's' entry was on betrayal. This is how I exercise my writer's wings in the morning...


Step One: Brainstorm Instances
Sarah with Jane
Daniel with John
Diana with Chris
Margaret with no one; just not being there for me at a time of need

Step Two: Choose one and briefly explain it
I’m going to take the one with Margaret because it is the most recent. Someone I love had just been diagnosed with Hashimoto Disease. I was trying to tell Margaret about the whole ordeal which had been very terrifying for us. There was a chance, a good chance, it was cancer. All Margaret was interested in doing was telling me her extensive knowledge and experiences with hyper and hypothyroidism. I tried to explain how that had nothing to do with this – an autoimmune disease. She became agitated, competitive. I told her about the treatment. She again questioned my doctors with an in-your-face attitude. She called me combative. I was shocked. I felt this shock behind my eyes, in the front of my brain, trying to right the wrong. I couldn't. My chest felt tight. High up in my chest, I felt tense.

Step Three: Take the instance - which is full of generalizations - and rewrite it from a sensory perspective…
The betrayal hit the back of my eyes first then seeped up to the front of my brain where it searched for a plausible answer. She was accusing me of the very thing she was doing. Combative. I was informative. She was fighting against everything I was saying. High up in my chest, I tensed. This tension moved down my back and I could feel something there crackle and pop. I’ve felt this sensation before – when fighting with Jane. An electricity, like a toxin, travels through my muscles until the muscle’s last bit of healthy flesh crackles and pops, no longer able to fight against the hurt and pain and bitter shock of a loved one turning against you. Blackness seeped from my eyes as my world became dark. If this person is not here for me, who then is?

Like I said, it is not flawless, but the point is, hopefully to be in touch with your senses when you felt that emotion. Where did you feel it? Emotions are felt in your body. Knowing where that feeling lived will help you SHOW it to your reader so they can feel it too.

Give it a try and share your samples in the comment section.
“Personal limitation exists only in our ideas of who we are. Give up all notions of who you are and your limitations will vanish.”

- Anonymous