English department creative writing majors have this dictum beaten into their skulls early and often: “Show, don’t tell.” Intellectually, I understood what the profs meant: describe situations rather than have the narrator explain what happens in a particular scene. However, it wasn’t until I read The Emotion Thesaurus that I understood how this dictum translated into actual writing practice.
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Imagine you’ve got a very emotional story to tell. We all know how much emotion is internalized, in feelings or words. However, your publisher has dictated two important rules:
- Thou shalt not write interior monologues.
- Thou shalt not explain the meaning of an event in the narration.
I’ve been guilty of this for years, which is one of several reasons why I make my living as a technical writer, not a fiction writer. But here’s where those two rules force the writer to get better at his/her craft: if you can’t as Author explain how everything fits together, you have to depict the impact through characters’ dialogue, physical actions, or other descriptions of behavior. Again, the point of this approach to writing is that some of the burden of understanding the story is given over to the reader. Another advantage of this type of writing–should you be so inclined–is that it is much easier to translate “external” writing into TV or movie productions because everything is right there on the page.
On the flip side, stories that are very internalized or are overburdened with narrative explanation are notoriously difficult to translate into visual images. The only film I know that did a halfway decent job of this was Dune, which was a stinker on other levels, but captured the internal monologues of Frank Herbert’s cerebral series well.
What The Emotion Thesaurus does is provide the writer with a range of emotions, their definitions, physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of long-term emotional effects, and cues to repressed emotion. Through all of these, the writer can better “method act” their characters into life through words alone. I found this visceral approach to “show, don’t tell” so worthwhile that this lesson alone was worth the price.
Not sure what I mean by show vs. tell? I’ll try an example to see if I can depict it honestly.
Jerry saw the news: Chicago nuked by terrorists. He couldn’t believe it: half his family–or more!–wiped out in the mother of all fires. And for what? He swore revenge right there and then.
Jerry turned on the TV, saw a wide-eyed reporter with pursed lips and watery eyes explain with a shaky voice, “…terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the destruction. First incorporated in 1837, the city of Chicago has been utterly obliterated by a high-power hydrogen bomb. The casualties…” The news reader choked up, paused, and composed herself. “At a guess, over five million people died in the initial blast. How many might be injured or suffering from radiation burns will take weeks or months to determine as emergency crews from neighboring cities attempt a rescue effort. Because of the electromagnetic pulse and the extent of the damage, we’re only getting fragmentary images, mostly from people in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Rockford, where damage was bad, but survivable.”
The images on the screen were shaky, but featured screaming voices, anguished cries, faces contorted with pain or burns so horrific that blur spots were insufficient to cover the blood or discolored flesh on the screen. “I must warn viewers, that some of the images you are about to see, are extremely disturbing….”
A spasm crossed Jerry’s face. He poked at the mute on the remote, then dropped it as his hands began to shake. He began reciting names as his eyes touched on every cherished face, young and old, and every familiar South Side apartment building, restaurant, and church in the pictures on his wall: “Momma. Daddy. Regina. DaSean. Malcolm. Mokeena. Auntie Jessie. Auntie Carmela….you bastards. You stupid, f—ing bastards!”
The crawl under the news reader’s face shared casualty figures, statements by the President, by Congress, FEMA, the Red Cross… “Who did it?” He shouted at the TV.
Teeth clenched, Jerry picked the remote off the floor and jabbed repeatedly at the mute until the sound came back on. “…nce again, the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attack, which is unprecedented in the history of terrorism and this country…”
Jerry’s lip turned up in a snarl. He spat at the screen, not caring about the mess. “Okay, that’s fine, you bastards. You’ve made up my mind for me. I will m-make it my mission in life to destroy you.”
But before he took any action in that direction, Jerry collapsed into his recliner and cried long and hard for the next two hours.
Obviously the “Tell” version is a lot shorter, but the “Show” version gives the reader more time to experience and feel the moment along with Jerry. We’re able to “see” Jerry’s character better. “Telling” is brief and, pardon the expression, bloodless. We don’t have a sense of the event nor of Jerry’s reaction to it. Okay, now I get it.
The trick becomes–will I get better or different stories out of this lesson? Time will tell.