Did I Screw Up?

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:

  1. Necessary.
  2. Permissible, but something you could do better.
  3. Poor technique.




5 thoughts on “Did I Screw Up?

  1. I’m a firm proponent of showing and never telling. There are so many rich methods to expose your characters by showing that telling becomes the European Monologue® of literature no matter how silky smooth the prose.

    Showing, as the authors Macauley and Lanning point out, can be done by what the character says, how he approaches life, the choices he makes, and so forth but also by (and less discussed and oft more important) interaction with other characters.

    Other characters act as sounding boards, revealing through conversation or dramatic words deep characterization impossible to show while the character is alone. Even in these scenarios, actions speak louder than words and how the character physically responds to another is a demonstration often needing nothing else.

    “Jake walked down the road.” Is essentially a flat statement, a statistic as the authors above said. As such, does it need to be present in the story? However, “Jake stumbled down the road head down, arms crossed and shivering though his shirt sagged with mid-day sweat.” Implies a question which drives the reader forward to find out why. Contrast this sentence with the preceding: “Jake felt overwhelmed and stunned as he walked down the road.”, which divorces the reader from being able to emphasize.

    Throw in, if necessary and appropriate, a few road-weary regulars that encounter Jake and extend a hand to his shoulder, concerned. How does he react? Does he lash out violently, does he simply stop, does he break down, or does he ignore them and continue on? Suddenly you have an opportunity to expose even more, beg more questions, and generate empathy all in one swoop.

    As an aside, the forum author you linked to mentions using telling to illustrate passages of time that enter on a scene where nothing interesting is happening. As far as the craft goes, this begs the question on why the scene is opening into a non-event. In terms of passage of time, each passage presents an opportunity for character interaction in summary or setup for a dynamic scene opening or fleshing out aspects of landscape, culture, and any other myriad of detail that a crafted world should flourish in.

    • JR,

      I agree completely with you in the example you gave. However, the post revolved around a separate topic: introducing emotion.

      Is it okay to use telling to clarify emotional state?

      I find myself using the following kind of statements a lot:

      His nostrils flared.
      His eyebrows arched.
      He slammed his fist against the table.

      For the most part, those clearly show emotions. However, there are times when more subtle indicators are called for, indicators which can be misinterpreted by the reader. Do you think it’s ever okay to say, “He was angry at the perceived slight”? Granted, it’s not as strong for the reader, but it is clear.

      Regarding the forum post, the author (me) is indicating summarizing the passage of time and space between scenes. Action in scene 1 ends, you summarize where nothing important happens, Action in scene 2 starts. Certainly, one style is to simply end scene 1, put 3 asterisks, and start scene 2 in the middle of action. I’m actually doing that with my new WIP, The Slender Man Massacre, but I don’t think that narrative summary is misused as originally stated.

      Thanks for the comment.


      • So clarity vs. punch, basically. My instinct is that the most potent form includes both and that there is a method to avoid misunderstanding, such as using preceding and post sentences in the paragraph to provide context for a sticky circumstance. Can you provide an example of possible misunderstanding?

        My preference for scene transitions is that where the next scene begins with the characters dealing with the consequences of the preceding scene. I know examples can be limited, but here’s my though process.

        Scene 1 – Two young boys fight over who gets to keep a friendly dog. Their village subsists on a single open well nearby where they are fighting. As the argument escalates, the scene climaxes when one of the boys dumps the dog into the well.

        Scene 2 – A few weeks later, the boys’ mother visits the local physician for sudden onset of a vomiting, diarrhea, and other ailments. As the mother’s condition worsens, the old physician remarks that he wishes his dog would come home so he could focus.

        In the actual writing, no passage of time need be directly indicated as it could be revealed with ancillary details such as school projects, the progress of a new house construction nearby, the approach of a festival, the change in seasons, the cooled reaction to the other boy, the festering of guilt over the secret murder of the dog, etc…. However, the reader subconsciously makes the association of details and understands time has passed and experience an “Ah ha!” moment realizing that the mother’s sickness is a result of the decomposing body in the well.

        By the way, I’m enjoying this bantering. You seem to be focused sharply on the craft and it makes me think “out loud” to respond. Since I’m forced to articulate into writing what is normally vaporous thought, I’m learning about myself in the process.

      • JR,

        I, too, am enjoying the exchange. I’m an engineer and seek to grasp firmly all the concepts involved.

        As to an example, I’ll post one as a blog entry either later this week or early next.

        As to the discussion of scene transitions: your method is certainly valid. On the other hand, per all the sources I’ve read, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a quick paragraph summarizing what the characters were up to for the interceding weeks. I tend to use the method you’re advocating between “big” scene breaks – I have rising action with a climax and I need to change scenes for a chapter break or new POV character. In this case, I use subtle indicators to show the reader the new time and location. For “small” scene breaks inside a chapter where I keep the same POV character, I don’t like doing the three asterisks. I want to keep my reader in the story as much as possible, and I feel that the hard scene break gives them the opportunity to put the book down. In this case, I quickly transition via narrative to the next place where something exciting occurs.



  2. Pingback: Let Me Tell You Something | brianwfoster.com

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