You’ve heard it over and over: Show, don’t tell. And that’s appropriate whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. When you communicate emotions in your writing, when those emotions are vital to your scene or message, it’s more powerful to show them.
Now, I’m not going to tackle the pros and cons of telling, or when and why it’s better to show. (I covered at that in a previous post, so go there if you want to read up on it.) Instead, I want to talk today about how to show in such a way that your readers will not just read what your characters are going through, they’ll live it. In a way that avoids the dreaded clichés. Namely, to use your own emotional memory to bring your characters’ emotions to life.
We writers often struggle with finding a new or unique way to show emotions. I mean, how many ways are there to show that someone is angry? Yelling? Frowning? Throwing something? Yes, yes, and yes…all of which have been used over and over. But you and I have within us the key to taking our showing to the next level. And that’s reliving those emotionally charged moments in our lives. You know how I keep saying nothing is wasted in the life if a writer? Well, our own emotions, how they impacted us, how we expressed them, are a treasure trove of writing resources.
For example, think of the last time you got mad. I mean, really mad. Picture that in your mind. Focus on how it felt. What was your physical reaction to the anger? Where did you feel it? How did you feel it? What was your physical response? Examine every angle, and write it down.
I stared out a window until I could get my temper under control.
Heat rushed my face, then I went cold.
The blood pounded in my head, and it hurt so much I could hardly think straight.
The muscles in my neck and shoulders bunched and knotted.
I clenched my teeth so hard that I thought I was going to break them.
I put my hand on a cold window hoping that would cool off my heated temper.
My jaw ached all the way up into my ear.
Hateful words filled me, and it was like they were choking me.
My stomach threatened to reject the lunch I’d just eaten.
Any or all of these can be used when you write, to bring a level of reality to what you’re showing. For example:
Sarah stared out the window, focusing on the clean snow blanketing the yard. On the bits of snow dropping from the trees. On anything but the man standing there, waiting for her response to his accusation. The pain in her jaw warned her that she was clenching her teeth again. Hard. So hard she thought they might break. She closed her eyes. Stop…don’t say it. You’ll only regret it. But the heated words pressed into her throat, choking her. She swallowed hard, then leaned forward, pressing her forehead against the frigid glass. If only her temper would cool as well.
I encourage you to keep your own “Emotions Journal,” where you use your emotional memory to flesh out as many emotions as you can. And then ask those around you how it feels when they experience the emotions you’re exploring.
In this way, you can have an ever-growing resource for showing emotions in powerful and unique ways.
So now let’s have some fun. Think of a time you were frightened. Scared to the core. Use that emotional memory and write no more than three lines to show the fear. And remember: no clichés allowed!