You’ve heard it over and over: Show, don’t tell. Well, I agree with that sentiment when it comes to important emotional scenes. Fiction, nonfiction, doesn’t matter. If you want to stir your readers, learn to show powerful emotions.
As I thought about this blog, though, I figured you all don’t need yet another how to. Instead, I want to challenge you to share the most powerful emotion you felt this week. And see if we can tell what the emotion is.
- No naming emotions. You have to give us the sense of your emotion without saying what it is.
- You have to do it in no more than five lines. Seriously, no more.
- If you share, be sure to comment on the others’ offerings to let them know what emotion you got from what they wrote.
Okay? I’ll start.
He was back! Sun glinting on his red crown, wings battering the air with fierce determination as he zipped this way and that, performing daredevil aerial maneuvers to protect his feeder from intruders. She leaned back in her chair, not even trying to stop her grin. Oh! How she loved watching hummingbirds.
[Photo by Karen Ball]
I’m guessing yours is amazement. I love watching hummingbirds too! Here’s mine:
She stared at the piles of paperwork overlapping on her desk. Did she really have to deal with every single piece? She walked away, only to return moments later to face the task.
I’m guessing your is overwhelmed.
Yup, overwhelmed. I relate!
Karen, I’m thinking yours is excitement.
It had been a long time since she stepped foot in a church. Too long. That hanging cross behind the pulpit pulled her to the alter. She went to her knees, then wrapped her arms around her head. She let the tears pour, ignoring the wet puddle they made.
Heather, I’m guessing yours is submission or guilt. Hmm
Or the sense of coming home.
Seriously? He stood before me, long legs askew and hair limp against his shoulder. Without blinking an eye he had just told me David picked him up at Jeff’s house. Not an hour before our neighbor mentioned seeing him sneak into a run down silver car with a teenage girl at the end of the street. My mind whirled in an attempt to respond calmly.
I’m guessing yours is anger
i agree ….anger.
Yup, anger. Fury.
Louise M. Gouge
Tolley rested his arms on his desk and his head on his arms and breathed out a long, deep sigh. If George Eberly wouldn’t trust him with legal matters, much less with his daughter, that bode ill for his future here in Esperanza. If not for knowing the Lord was using him to help Mrs. Foster, he would pack up and leave. He had no idea where he’d go, but surely there was someplace in this world where a man could be granted a new beginning.
Discouragement or being utterly fed up.
Your’s is joy!
I slide nearly three feet. Sticky wet coated the bottom of my foot, and although it was dark, I knew exactly what it was. That adorable little puppy who was normally the joy of my life, had done it AGAIN! A heavy sigh escaped my lungs, but I couldn’t seem to muster enough strength to do anything but hobble to the sink to wash away the mess.
Weariness. Or resignation. Oh, how puppies test our mettle!
Delight was the emotion for the above paragraph.
She held onto her wide-brimmed hat as her eyes darted from one majestic high-rise to another. Impatient crowds bustled around her, sweeping her to the other side of the street. A cab driver spouted an invective–she didn’t care. She closed her eyes and inhaled the aroma of chestnuts and hotdogs. She was home.
Oh, I felt this while living in Illinois–every time I returned home to Oregon! Belonging. Restoration. Peace.
Tossing and turning, I attempted to calm the traumatic senarios racing though my mind with prayer. Having your daughter and her family vacationing at the beach as the news belched out shark attacks and drownings was not conducive to sleep.
I thought the hummingbird story brought forth delight, the puppy story disgust, the cheating man disillusionment and anger, the Esperanza story disappointment, yet determination, the church story self-searching and repentance.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Karen, this is a great exercise. All too often I see “he said sarcastically” or similar phrases from writers. The reader should be able to draw on the knowledge of the character and the pertinent event so the author doesn’t need to tell us the character’s feelings outright.
Here we go: I become aware of two things simultaneously: the touch of cool sheets against my skin, and a familiar tonal scale erupting from my cell phone. My eyes itch like they did all those years ago when I would dive to the bottom of the pool. I rub my face and moan. Already my to-do-list is rolling out like a red carpet in front of me, and the phone flashes like a paparazzi saying, “Welcome to Wednesday–don’t worry, it’s all downhill from here.”
Resignation. Weariness. Made me want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head!
Opening line of my current WIP: God was punishing her, just like her father said He would, just like He was punishing the bare silent land of the Kansas plains. The same contemptible dry wind that swallowed up their crops had blown across her soul, stealing her hope and things she held dear.
Giving up, helpless. Beautiful writing.
Despair. Or Resentment.
There was a gaping hole inside her chest, right where her heart should be. The rest of her felt numb. She stumbled into the bedroom and paused, her hand still on the doorknob. The empty bed across the room was just another reminder that he was never coming home.
Sadness, grief, sense of loss. Nice work.
Definitely grief. Loss.
Great job, Morgan. But then, you’re a terrific writer. LOVE your work.
Morgan L. Busse
Thanks Karen 🙂 My dog just passed away unexpectedly a couple days ago and so I used what I am feeling right now. Writing has a way of helping us process life.
So sorry about your loss. I’ll be praying for you.
Loss, stress, maybe anger or frustration, depending on why he isn’t coming home. Great job on this 🙂
I walked up to the counter at the gym with my purse clutched in a death grip.
The girl at the desk smiled and said, “May I help you?”
“I…I…I have to do something,” I said, trying to hold back the tears.
The shoes – one exasperated mom on a school day!
Could be desperation. Or fear.
Morgan certainly captured grief.
Any mom would feel Rebekah’s mother’s frustration. It put me right back in the moment
Mine is only 5 lines in the manuscript, so I hope that counts as following the rules.
She slid her small hand into his large one. Together they walked to the center of the arena. Chains rattled as the mesh gate of the lion cage was raised enough to let the big cats enter.
Publius knelt beside the little girl. “Look up. See Jesus?”
She tilted her head back, and a bright smile appeared as she nodded
“Now close your eyes, and don’t open them until you’re in his arms.”
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Wow- the wholesale slaughter of Christians? The courage of Publius and the childlike wonder of the little girl?
I agree with Sheri: courage.
Carol, this is strong writing, but I’m actually not getting a lot of emotion from the scene. Yes, we get the little girl’s trust, but no emotion from Publius. We can deduce from his actions and his words to the girl that he’s being courageous, but we don’t feel his emotions. So this is more a narrative scene than it is showing emotions.
I agree, Karen. It needs the six lines before and four lines after for the full gut-wrenching emotional impact the character is experiencing.
No, not again. She called for me but it was different this time—urgent. When I flipped on the lights, her eyes revealed something was wrong. She snugged a blanket up around her neck as though it could protect from what had just happened but, even under the cover of the blanket, I could see a walnut-sized lump growing along her jowl. It contorted, then bruised, like that, bam, and then, she said, “I fell off the bed.”
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Fear of illness during her dream and relief that it wasn’t real when she fully awoke?
Awesome interpretation. Definitely, fear of illness and injury.
Apprehension on the part of the person going to the room. Fear on the person under the blanket.
Feeling frustrated, exasperated!
A fun exercise. Here’s mine.
The phone jangled her from an exhausted sleep. “You need to come to the hospital.”
She always knew this day would come, but did it have to be so soon? It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Only hours ago everything had seemed fine. Now she would be alone, dreadfully alone.
Soul enriching joy.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
She tried to comprehend the information she had been given: her husband had wiped her out financially as she lay in a coma, he was engaged and living with someone new, and he wanted to stop feeding her. He had given away all of her possessions and did not want her to live.
Shock and betrayal. I feel it.
Absolute despair, sense of betrayal, maybe some sadness and loss.
Now that they were over halfway to California, could he allow himself to dream of Sarah’s soft face in his hands? Could he dream of her velvet skin? Of running his fingers through her hair? Maybe it was too soon.
Ooo, longing. Nice.
Longing. Love. Nice 🙂
Frustration. Ah, the joys of motherhood.
Great job, everyone! Thanks for participating!
From my WIP. Perfect topic today as I try to convey all kinds of emotion in this scene:
His words reached through the page straight to my heart.
Then it struck me… he thought I was with Warren!
“He doesn’t know,” I whispered.
Like those old-timey slides my grandma used to show me from when she was a girl, they had to be lined up just-so to work properly, the pieces of my conversation with Brody at the airport lined up and clicked together.
I looked at his words again, and couldn’t help the goofy grin that slid across my face. I whispered, “He still loves me.”
Realization, then happiness.
On Kate’s: longing and hope.
She snuggled deeper into the plaid blanket and turned the page. A slow, scratching sound made her look towards the window beside her. Silence. She turned another page. The lights flickered and cold air rushed across her body.
I could see that hummingbird, Karen! I got wonder at the glory of creation.
Here’s mine (and it’s a true story!):
As they brought the metal mesh barrel filled with scraps of pink paper on stage, I leaned over to my husband and said, “Wouldn’t you just die if one of us won?” Two tickets to The Met in New York City with airfare and hotel included–total bucket list stuff. The auditorium went silent as the orchestra conductor pulled a name from the barrel, “Becca With-am.” I looked at the conductor, at my husband, and back at the conductor who almost pronounced my last name correctly…I mean, it was pretty close. So close that, “Are you KIDDING me?”
Oops…five lines, not five sentences. Sorry! 🙂
Did the same thing!
LOL! You writers. You never READ! xo
Thanks, Becca. Yours is full of fun and delight. How was the trip?
It hasn’t happened yet…probably in October or November.
My voice carried my smile to the front door after it opened, then closed. “Good evening.” Silence.
She came into the kitchen, opened a blank notebook, and wrote, “I’m feeling three levels at the same time.”
“What are you talking about? Are you sick?”
“NO,” she wrote, practically gouging out the paper with her pen.
“I think I need to call 911.”
Confusion. And concern.
“Tch.”. He gritted his teeth. “So that’s it then, after everything you’ve done, you’re just going to leave?!”
She met his eyes steadily, though something in her gaze said she was disinterested in his words. “I don’t expect you to suddenly understand everything you do to drive me away. I’m tired of fighting about it for hours on end and getting nowhere, all you need to know is I’m going and nothing will change that.”
Becca: Surprise, then glee.
Barbara: extreme irritation
I flunked with my first, so here’s a second try.
“I should guard you until your father returns.” He shook his head once. “I might not be able to.”
“Yes, you can. We’ll be at the farm soon, and we’ll be safe there. After you heal, you’ll protect me again.”
His ears caught the quaver in her voice. He took a deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips. Even in the darkened room, everything looked . . . sparkly. God, is this what it feels like to be dying?
Ooo, very nice! Well done.
It’s hard to beat the succinct sentiment expressed in Roger Miller’s 1964 Grammy Award-winning song: “Well, dang me! Dang me! They ought to take a rope and hang me—high from the highest tree! Woman, would you weep for me?”
Joy permeates her office and I laugh being around her. Yesterday we worked, did good things, made music and sang together. Love for her marriage was on her mind and I share my own. Tonight hearts weep. She is widowed, alone. I hug my husband tighter as we share our love and wonder how much time we have together…
He sat. The creaking of the old chair felt strangely familiar. Like he’d heard it many times before. But that was impossible. As impossible as the way it fit to him now, like a mother’s hand over his saying, “Come sweets, we’ll cross the street together.”
The guard strapped his legs down. Together. One. Two. Three. Cross.
What an interesting exercise! Love Bill Hendricks’s mention of the classic “Dang Me.” Roger Miller was a great country wordsmith…
To Karen’s comment of “showing, not telling, emotion,” which I agree with, I would add that sometimes underplaying emotion in a scene can be very powerful. Too many fledgling writers I see want to throw everything in, and the writing winds up being exhausting rather than gripping.
Holding you transports me. Your warm cheek, nestled in the crook of my arm. Your back occupying more of my lap each week. Your legs curled around me, or often, sticking straight up into my face, your tiny toes tickling my chin. Your smile is so easy, so beautiful. Your dark eyes hold all the truths of the universe. You are perfection.