Last week, I sent a what I thought was nearly complete draft of Abuse of Power to my beta readers, hoping, as usual, for them to tell me it was awesome, the best thing they ever read. What I got back was that it read flat. I hadn’t put in nearly enough emotion.
This response sent me into panic mode. I understood immediately where the emotion was missing, but what did I need to do to add it?
That question lead to this thread on Mythic Scribes. You can read through the whole thing if you want, but I’ll summarize:
- Me: I firmly believe that Showing is better than Telling. However, the emotion isn’t coming though the way I want.
- Them: Showing demonstrates an emotion but leaves too much open for interpretation whereas Telling, while not reliable, is clear.
- Conclusion: Use a mix of the two.
I took that advice for my novelette. Then I read Technique in Fiction by Macauley and Lanning. Regarding Showing, the authors write:
The reader has a chance to participate in the story; he sees certain evidence and forms certain conclusions; his intelligence has been engaged; he is working out the implicit, the unspoken, side of the story. He knows, of course, that the result is foregone and that the sense of working it out is an illusion, but it is one of the most potent illusions any writer can create.
It is a principle of high importance that the truly significant ideas arise from some viewed interplay of life in a story rather than from flat statement. Saying “Steven was a vain and quite fatuous young man” is something different from hearing him talking about his clothes, name-dropping to impress people, and trying to get himself invited to the right dinner parties. In the first, the truth is a statistic; in the second, it is a deduction from observed evidence. This is as true of actions as of words. The interesting, revelatory, unpredictable actions that contribute most richly to story or character ought to be treated in process, as they gradually expose themselves in scene.
A small but common mistake of writers – even good writers – is to tell the same thing in two different ways, by report and by demonstration.
The authors go on to write:
…the writers confess either a lack of faith in his audience – they will not be able to deduce for themselves – or a lack of faith in their own ability – he does not believe that he can show without telling.
Oops. It appears that I may have made a mistake with following the advice of the forum members. What the authors say makes a lot of sense. Instead of telling, perhaps I should have done a better job of showing.
Granted, the authors are not discussing conveying emotion or specifically addressing short stories. Telling is required to make short stories work, and perhaps there is an exception for emotion.
What are your thoughts? Is using telling to convey emotion:
- Permissible, but something you could do better.
- Poor technique.