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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

TARA K. HARPER
WRITER'S WORKSHOP
Show, Don't Tell, the Story


Tara's Twelve Rules of Writing:
#8 - Feelings, Woe, Woe, Woe Feelings
(or, Emotions Require Context)

Feelings, Woe, Woe, Woe Feelings
An Example and a Rewrite

How Many Emotional Qualifiers Do You Really Need?


Feelings, Woe, Woe, Woe Feelings

Every writer hears it:  show, don't tell, the story, or the reader will not care.  It's advice that's now almost trite.  But what does it mean, to show, not tell?  How can you force the reader to feel?

The answer is you can't force readers to feel anything.  You can only show them (or her) the context in which their own emotions may come out.

For example, if I simply tell you that Lynn is anguished, do you suddenly feel anguished yourself?  I doubt it.  If I write that Jim was frightened, does your heart pound?  Probably not. You need to go through the actions and responses yourself, before you can feel what they feel.

One way to see if you're not being honest with your character's emotions is to look for excess emotional qualifiers.  They're often an indication that you're "telling" the reader how to feel at this point, rather than letting readers develop their own feelings through the characters' actions and responses.  When you see an emotional qualifier -- fearless, angry, tender, overjoyed, anguished, devastated, etc. -- ask yourself if it would be better tp replace that qualifier with the series of small action-reaction events (eg, physical motions) that create the context for that emotion.

In other words, the anguish will never be real if Lynn (and thus the reader) never tightens a muscle to keep from crying.  The guilt won't be real if Timmy doesn't finger the coins that he stole.  The fear will not be real until Jim's heart pounds or Sarah hears the faint scrape of metal on leather behind her.

You cannot force an emotion simply by saying the word.  Emotions require context.

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An Example and a Rewrite

Consider this initial passage, about a man systematically stripping his ex-wife of everything important to her.  Does it engage your emotions or feel flat?
      "You actually thought I'd agree to this?"  He laughed.  "You 're an idiot."  Deliberately, he tore the custody papers in half.   .   .  .
Lynn stared at him in anguish.  He'd gotten everything else.  Now he was going to take her daughter.
His voice was soft.  "What court would give a young girl to a woman so irresponsible as to lose her job, spend her savings, and go into debt with every friend?  A woman living in a place like this, a place fit only for whores and addicts?"  He tore the papers again and, with satisfaction, let them fall to the carpet.  He turned away, in his tailored suit and Italian shoes, and strode out of the apartment.  .
Lynn's knees hit the bare wood floor. She was devastated, and her tears blinded her.  She didn't even hear the phone as it began to ring behind her.

Reworked, to avoid the qualifiers and let the scene create the anguish for you:
      "You actually thought I'd agree to this?"  He laughed.  "That I'd let you keep my daughter?  You're an idiot."  Deliberately, he tore the custody papers in half, then in half again.  Without taking his gaze from her stricken face, he opened his fingers and let the ragged strips fall.  .
Lynn heard his words, but they seemed to have no meaning.  All she could hear was the sound of paper ripping.  All she could see were the broken wings of the custody contract fluttering to the floor.  Two years, three lawyers, and every dime she'd saved and borrowed, and he'd led her on like a calf to the slaughter, made her think she could keep her child if she made just this one more concession.  Oh God.  Her stomach twisted.  Oh, God, God.  She couldn't seem to breathe.  .
He said softly as he watched her, "What court would give a three-year-old girl to a woman so irresponsible as to lose her job, spend every penny of her savings, and go into debt with every friend?  A woman living in a place like this, with drug addicts on the outside steps and roaches on the rugs -- a dump fit only for whores?"  He watched with savage satisfaction as her face went bone-white at the implication.  Then he turned away in his tailored suit and Italian shoes, and strode out of the apartment.  .
Something was wrong with Lynn's body.  It was trembling, almost shaking, and she stared blindly at the scuffed, dinged-up door for seconds before she realized that she was trying to sob, but could make no sound.  There was a roaring in her ears, and something was cutting her hands.  Her nails -- they'd bitten into her palms, and blood had started to well out under her fingertips.  She barely felt the pain when her knees hit the bare wood floor. She didn't hear the phone as it began to jangle behind her.  .

Check that reworked passage.  There are only two emotional qualifiers ("stricken" and "savage satisfaction") which work because the rest of the scene has built up the villain's attitude.  You're never told that Lynn is anguished or devastated.  Instead, you simply live through her responses.  When she reaches the point of actual anguish, you don't need someone to say "anguish."  Instead, you should be right there feeling your own emotions with her.

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How Many Emotional Qualifiers Do You Really Need?

Emotional qualifiers are necessary, but should be used carefully.  Remember that the strength of the story isn't in the statement of emotion (fear or anguish or anger).  The strength of the story is in the process by which one reaches that emotion. All this comes through context, not simply by telling reader what they should be feeling.

What is called a sincere work is one that is endowed with
enough strength to give reality to an illusion.

                               - from Art Poetique, Max Jacob, 1876 - 1944.

Let the story , not your qualifiers (tenderly, joyfully, angrily, frightened, etc.), create the setting in which readers can become fully immersed and express their own emotions.  If you don't engage the reader's feelings in honest context, the mere words you use (anguished, horror-stricken, etc.) will not miraculously effect those emotions for you.


Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.


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