I still remember the moment with clarity. We were doing a Q&A during lunch at the annual writers conference. Someone made the usual comment about how writers should “show, not tell”—and my longtime friend Kathleen Park called us on it. “People always say that,” she countered from the audience. “But let’s face it—sometimes you just have to tell. Otherwise, the story never goes anywhere.”
And you know what? She’s right.
After a long moment of thought, I grasped the discrepancy between what we were saying and what she was saying. When writers talk about “showing,” we’re usually referring not to plot details, but to character emotions (although the same is true of descriptions. Remember what Chekhov said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”) When you simply tell the reader about a character’s emotions, it has little impact. “Sally was sad.” So what? Barely even registers. If you want reader impact, you create a vivid mental image readers can absorb. “Sally raced up the stairs, slammed her bedroom door, threw herself on the bed and pounded the pillows, tears streaming from her eyes.” Ok, over the top, but you get the idea. Create a vivid image.
Here’s a question for you. Is that image better with or without the tears? To me, the tears are so obvious it’s better without them. Adding tears comes perilously close to telling.
The task of revealing emotional states is even more challenging when you’re dealing with a character with suppressed or repressed emotions, like my longtime series character Ben Kincaid. Because he tended to keep his feelings bottled up inside, I devised all sorts of indirect indicators to communicate his feelings to the reader. I think these were key to the widespread character empathy that spawned nineteen novels in the series. As you know from reading Creating Character, reader connection to your protagonist is key to immersion in the story. That’s why I encourage you to think about backstory, to complete character job applications, and such. Similarly, in Perfecting Plot, I urged you to think about character arc, hero’s journeys, and the long-form story you’re telling.
How do you reveal the emotions that lie beneath the surface? As it turns out, it’s much the same in fiction as in real life. You can draw from your own experiences to create three-dimensional characters who are still portrayed with art and subtlety.
The first and most obvious approach is body language. We all know the body indicates emotions (far better than words). That’s why we have our characters smile, shrug, breathe deeply, whisper, etc. The problem here is that a little goes a long way, it soon becomes repetitive, and some body-language indicators are so obvious that, once again, it comes perilously close to telling.
Another approach is to deliberately portray the character having an over- or under-reaction. When someone suddenly flies off the handle for no apparent reason, it usually indicates something is simmering inside. My new series character, Daniel Pike, usually appears confident and genial, so if he suddenly erupts, or has any extreme emotion—you know something is bothering him. The same is true for an unnatural under-reaction. Either way, it cues the reader that something unstated is troubling the character, and encourages them to figure out what it is. Another mystery to solve, which always keeps readers turning pages..
You don’t have to be a poker player to know that tics and tells often reveal what someone is thinking. Everyone has a tell, they say, and so should your protagonist. The reader may not recognize the tell at first—but they will in time, and that will be a wonderful epiphanic moment that will not only let them feel smart but will also inspire them to think that you are a skilled and artful writer. Ben Kincaid stuttered when he was worried, or having some other suppressed emotion. Sometimes he tugged at his collar. What’s happening with your character? My advice: try to avoid the obvious—like averting eyes or clearing throats. Come up with something less on-the-nose, something readers may not immediately grasp, but will love when they get it and will relish when it reoccurs—because they now know what it means, without bring told.
You’ve read about the fight-or-flight response. Which will your protagonist choose? Most heroes will fight-eventually. (This is why I never took to the Scooby Doo crew. What kind of heroes run when they see the monster?) But perhaps fighting is not your protagonist’s first response. Maybe it’s something they have to work up to. Will your character freeze? Choke? This might give you an opening for a great character arc. The character eventually finds strength they didn’t realize they possessed.
Finally, consider whether a passive-aggressive response might reveal what is swirling beneath the surface. (This might be better for a sidekick character than the main hero.) Entire books have been written about passive-aggression, but the general idea is that someone superficially acquiesces, but does so in a way that suggests hostility. If you ask your partner if they want to go to the movies and they answer, “We could do that”—well, that isn’t a “Yes!”, is it? Similarly “Sure, if you want to” is passive-aggressive. “You do whatever you want. You always do” is edging closer to plain aggression, but it definitely reveals suppressed emotions. This is another reason to write “off-the-nose” dialogue, which as I explained in Dynamic Dialogue, is often the most interesting dialogue to read.
You can use some or all of these techniques if you find them useful. What is paramount is that your give the reader an opportunity to connect to your main character. When readers identify with a character, even though the character is completely unlike them—that’s when the magic happens. That’s when the reader feels they’re on the page, experiencing this story as it happens, learning the lessons the character learns, without undergoing the misery you put the character through. That is the hallmark of a great book. And you can do it. So start writing.