Posts Tagged ‘Show. Don’t Tell.’

Emotion: How Much is Too Much?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

When describing a scene of extreme anguish or emotion, many writers want to convey every nuance of feeling directly to the reader. This attempt at literal emotional transcription can sometimes result in an overabundance of adverbs and adjectives—wordiness, in general. Often, the best way to convey extreme emotion is to under-describe it, taking the old “less-is-more” adage to heart.

The following is an unedited piece of text that tends to shroud the emotion in unnecessary wording. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast as though he hadn’t dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me, destroying everything I once held dear in my life.

“What?” I said quietly, not really sure how to react. This was the worst comment anyone had ever made to me, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or tear my hair out in desperation. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air. I felt like I was on the verge of fainting, but I also felt like a surge of electricity had shot through me and like I was suddenly bursting with rage or shock. I wanted to throw dishes at Maurice or sit quietly and sob.

“You heard me,” he said—arrogantly, I thought. “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin meticulously and put it neatly by his plate, lining up his fork as well.

I thought he must be joking. I looked around frantically for a calendar, thinking it must be April Fool’s Day. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t able to focus.

“So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly. I couldn’t think of anything more logical to say.

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears. He really was vain, I thought to myself. I felt my insides go cold and then hot, and I thought I would be sick. We had been married for eleven years, and I had thought we were blissfully happy—well, not blissfully, but happy.

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said chillingly. “I have to go to work,” he added, advancing toward the door as though it were any other day.

After editing, the passage reads as follows:

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast.

“What?” I was not really sure how to react. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air.

“You heard me,” he said. “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin and put it by his plate, lining up his fork as well.

I thought he must be joking. “So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly.

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears.

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said. “I have to go to work,” he added, as though it were any other day.

Here is the passage with my editing marks visible. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast as though he hadn’t dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me, destroying everything I once held dear in my life. [The word “blandly” and Maurice’s act of buttering his toast sufficiently indicate that he is acting as though nothing has happened. The reader will understand that his comment is earth-shattering without the narrator having to mention this fact.]

“What?” I said quietly, was not really sure how to react. [Could the narrator say something other than “What”? If she made a slightly more irrelevant comment, you could show the reader her uncertainty. I eliminated “said” to avoid repeating it.] This was the worst comment anyone had ever made to me, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or tear my hair out in desperation. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air. I felt like I was on the verge of fainting, but I also felt like a surge of electricity had shot through me and like I was suddenly bursting with rage or shock. I wanted to throw dishes at Maurice or sit quietly and sob. [Your descriptions of this moment are very vivid, but using fewer of them gives the moment more impact. The sentence about the room getting smaller seems to encompass the ideas of the others and very graphically demonstrates the narrator’s emotion.]

“You heard me,” he said—arrogantly, I thought. [The adverb is unnecessary. Maurice’s spare language sufficiently indicates his arrogance and emotional distance. In addition, the narrator seems too upset to be able to assess Maurice’s true emotions.] “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin meticulously and put it neatly by his plate, lining up his fork as well. [The adverbs are colorful, but your pared-down words convey Maurice’s cold emotion very well.]

I thought he must be joking. I looked around frantically for a calendar, thinking it must be April Fool’s Day. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t able to focus. [Would the narrator really look for a calendar at this moment? Saying “I thought he must be joking” in the next sentence is sufficient, I think, to convey her sense of unreality.]

I thought he must be joking. “So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly. I couldn’t think of anything more logical to say. [“Foolishly” is sufficient to show that the narrator wishes she could think of something better to say.]

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears. He really was vain, I thought to myself. I felt my insides go cold and then hot, and I thought I would be sick. We had been married for eleven years, and I had thought we were blissfully happy—well, not blissfully, but happy. [“He really was vain” is not particularly necessary. The reader will see Maurice’s vanity when he stands smoothing his hair at this moment of great crisis.]

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said chillingly. [“Chillingly” feels unnecessary. Maurice’s unfeeling sentence is enough to convey this idea.] “I have to go to work,” he added, advancing toward the door as though it were any other day.

[Please send me your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]

Show. Don’t Tell.

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

waterWriters who work with editors often receive the same admonition: “Show; don’t tell,” and the editors are usually correct that more “showing” would be a good idea. However, many authors have confessed to me that they cannot quite see the difference between “showing” and “telling.” In other words, they can’t tell when their “telling” has overpowered their “showing,” and they would like concrete examples of both “showing” and “telling.”

In general, it’s far more interesting to learn about a character or situation through action or dialogue, rather than through straight narration. In much the same way that we would rather see a dramatic event for ourselves than hear someone else retell it, a reader would rather “see” events unfolding, rather than just “hear” about them through narration.

The following is an unedited piece of fiction that could use more “showing.” Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

The man might have been envious of her, she couldn’t tell. He kept making snide comments to her as they ate, and he acted restless and uncomfortable. Jeannine always thought that envy had to be reserved for members of the same group—only young girls could envy young girls, only middle aged men could envy middle aged men. But she was a young girl, and he was a middle aged man. And he was envious. That was perfectly clear from everything he had said to her.

Earlier in the evening, Mrs. Hastings had served a spectacular coq a vin, and everyone had been very impressed. Mrs. Hastings claimed that she had worked all day on it, and she probably had. The man looked envious. He had eaten quietly, with his head down and his eyes on his plate. The conversation was stilted.

Now that it was time for dessert, the man had become more lively. He told Mrs. Hastings funny stories, and he made several pithy comments. However, he was not more friendly to Jeannine. Instead, he seemed to have become more surly than he had been earlier in the evening. He asked Jeannine various questions, and she felt that she answered them unsatisfactorily every time. He grew more angry.

At last, the man set down his tea cup and looked across the table directly at Jeannine. She waited for him to say something, resting her fork quietly on her plate. The creme brulee had been delicious. The man glared at Jeannine and asked her if she would rather be happy, wealthy or lucky?

Jeannine was unsure what her response ought to be. She looked around the table, but everyone else seemed to be looking at their plates. She asked the man why she would ever have to choose between the three.

The man asked her to just answer the question. He was insistent.

Jeannine started to laugh but realized that the man was waiting for her response. She said she supposed she would rather be lucky.

“You’re wrong!” the man shouted triumphantly. He repeated that her answer had been wrong.

“Coffee, anyone?” Mrs. Hastings asked quickly.

Jeannine started to say that she hadn’t even really understood the question.

The man told her that she was wrong, because she was supposed to want to be happy. “I asked my own daughter that question, and she said ‘happy.’ She has her priorities straight.” The man looked piercingly at Jeannine.

Jeannine argued that ‘lucky’ was subjective. She said that if someone thought it was lucky to be happy, then that person probably would be happy.

“No, that’s the wrong answer.” The man looked around the table in satisfaction, as if he had just confirmed some long-held theory.

After editing, the story reads something like this:

The man might have been envious of her. She couldn’t tell. He kept giving her evil looks as they ate, and he seemed restless and uncomfortable. Jeannine always thought that envy had to be reserved for members of the same group—only young girls could envy young girls, only middle-aged men could envy middle-aged men. But she was a young girl, and he was a middle-aged man. And he was envious. That much was clear.

Earlier in the evening, Mrs. Hastings had served a spectacular coq au vin, and everyone had been very impressed. Mrs. Hastings claimed that she had worked all day on it, and she probably had. The man looked envious. He had eaten quietly, with his head down and his eyes on his plate. The conversation was stilted.

Now that it was time for dessert, the man had become more lively. However, he was not more friendly to Jeannine. Instead, he seemed to have become more surly than he had been earlier in the evening. He asked Jeannine various questions, and she felt that she answered them unsatisfactorily every time. He grew more angry.

At last, the man set down his tea cup and looked across the table directly at Jeannine. She waited for him to say something, resting her fork quietly on her plate. The crème brûlée had been delicious. The man glared at Jeannine and said, “Would you rather be happy, wealthy or lucky?”

Jeannine was unsure what her response ought to be. She looked around the table, but everyone else seemed to be looking at their plates. She said, “Why would I ever have to choose?”

The man said, “Just answer the question—happy, wealthy or lucky?” He was insistent.

Jeannine started to laugh but realized that the man was waiting for her response. “I guess lucky,” she said. “I guess, because…”

“You’re wrong!” the man shouted triumphantly. “That’s the wrong answer!”

“Coffee, anyone?” Mrs. Hastings asked quickly.

“But I didn’t even understand the question, and why wouldn’t…?” Jeannine started.

“It’s wrong, because you’re supposed to want to be happy. I asked my own daughter that question, and she said ‘happy.’ She has her priorities straight.” The man looked piercingly at Jeannine.

“But ‘lucky’ is subjective. If you think it’s lucky to be happy, and you consider yourself lucky, you probably are happy,” Jeannine said.

“No, that’s the wrong answer.” The man looked around the table in satisfaction, as if he had just confirmed some long-held theory.

Below is the text with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.):

The man might have been envious of her,. Sshe couldn’t tell. He kept giving her evil looks making snide comments to her as they ate, [It would be better to give an example of a snide comment than merely to say that the man was making these kinds of comments. The biggest part of “showing” is to include a character’s actual words, in dialogue. Did the man make any particular comments you could quote here? If not, I’ve added “giving her evil looks,” which does not require an example in dialogue.] and he seemedacted [Normally, I resist the use of the word “seem,” but if you say that the man is acting in a certain way, it might be better to give actual examples of what he is doing. Are there any examples of his restlessness and discomfort that you could include?] restless and uncomfortable. Jeannine always thought that envy had to be reserved for members of the same group—only young girls could envy young girls, only middleaged men could envy middleaged men. But she was a young girl, and he was a middleaged man. And he was envious. That much was clearwas perfectly clear from everything he had said to her. [Because the reader has not seen a specific example of what the man has actually said, I think this shorter sentence is sufficient.]

Earlier in the evening, Mrs. Hastings had served a spectacular coq au vin, and everyone had been very impressed. Mrs. Hastings claimed that she had worked all day on it, and she probably had. [This sentence is interesting, but what does it really mean? Is there some reason to question Mrs. Hastings’s claim about her dish? Why question her if she is probably telling the truth? In other words, why do you use the word “claimed?”] The man looked envious. He had eaten quietly, with his head down and his eyes on his plate. The conversation was stilted. [Although you do not give specific examples of the stilted conversation, this short sentence works well here. “Telling,” as opposed to “showing” is a good idea here, because you want to keep the story moving.]

Now that it was time for dessert, the man had become more lively. He told Mrs. Hastings funny stories, and he made several pithy comments. [I cut these two sentences, because I think they require a dialogue example. Can you mention some specific funny or pithy comments the man makes?] However, he was not more friendly to Jeannine. Instead, he seemed to have become more surly than he had been earlier in the evening. He asked Jeannine various questions, and she felt that she answered them unsatisfactorily every time. He grew more angry.

At last, the man set down his tea cup and looked across the table directly at Jeannine. She waited for him to say something, resting her fork quietly on her plate. The crèeme brûuee had been delicious. [I like the way you inject this seemingly irrelevant sentence into the action here. It seems a real thought that Jeannine would have at this moment.] The man glared at Jeannine and asked her if she would said, “Would you rather be happy, wealthy or lucky? [This is an important moment in the story, and I think you need to use the man’s exact words. If you merely paraphrase his words, the action is less precise, and the reader might not understand the importance of this question.]

Jeannine was unsure what her response ought to be. She looked around the table, but everyone else seemed to be looking at their plates. She said, “Why asked the man why she would I ever have to choose?” between the three. [Once again, I think the character’s direct words make the action more immediate for the reader.]

The man asked her to said, “Jjust answer the question–happy, wealthy or lucky?”. [I restated the question for more emphasis and to be sure the reader knows exactly what the man is asking.] He was insistent.

Jeannine started to laugh but realized that the man was waiting for her response. She said she supposed she would rather be lucky. “I guess lucky,” she said. “I guess, because…” [I added this last sentence to emphasize Jeannine’s uncertainty and the man’s impatience.]

“You’re wrong!” the man shouted triumphantly. He repeated that her answer had been wrong. “That’s the wrong answer!” [Directly quoting the man’s repetition emphasizes his unreasonableness and makes the action more precise for the reader.]

“Coffee, anyone?” Mrs. Hastings asked quickly. [I like the interruption this question provides. It’s very believable in a dinner-party context.]

Jeannine started to say that she hadn’t even really understood the question. “But I didn’t even understand the question, and why wouldn’t…?” [I added this sentence, although you might want to reword it. I just mean to indicate that showing Jeannine’s lack of understanding, through dialogue, is more precise than just telling the reader about it.]

The man told her that she was wrong, because she was supposed to want to be happy. “It’s wrong, because you’re supposed to want to be happy. I asked my own daughter that question, and she said ‘happy.’ She has her priorities straight.” The man looked piercingly at Jeannine. [Once again, I think the action is more vivid for the reader if you directly quote the characters. This man, in particular, reveals very strong emotions, and his direct words can convey that emotion powerfully.]

Jeannine argued that ‘lucky’ was subjective. She said that if someone thought it was lucky to be happy, then that person probably would be happy. “But ‘lucky’ is subjective. If you think it’s lucky to be happy, and you consider yourself lucky, you probably are happy,” Jeannine said. [Once again, I use the character’s direct words, in order to “show” the reader more.]

“No, that’s the wrong answer.” The man looked around the table in satisfaction, as if he had just confirmed some long-held theory.

[Please post your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]