A question came up on how to display emotions of characters without blatantly stating them. My take on it goes like this:
We can’t really talk about how to write character emotions without taking a second to lay down a base assumption about fiction: The most efficient way is generally not the best way.
The most efficient way to tell a story is via log line: Detective discovers who murdered his partner. Woman flees suffocating life in search of adventure, only to find another suffocation. Guy comes back to hometown to write book, ends up killing girlfriend and her vampire master.
The Maltese Falcon. The Haunting of Hill House. ‘Salem’s Lot.
These log lines might be pretty efficient, but they suck as fiction.
Granted, I’m not the world’s best writer, not even close. But from as far as I’ve progressed, I can see three basic stages of how to write character emotion:
1. He felt happy.
2. He held the woman’s hand and skipped.
3. The setting sun hit the lake like fireworks. She’d said she wanted to go west with him. Him! Not to Colorado, or California, or across the Pacific. Just west, like it was a country that stretched from this life to the next. West, forever west, blindingly west, into the sunset, and beyond.
(Let’s say this is the last sentence in a story: no conflict necessary, the setting has already been described, we already know the characters and the plot.)
Type one is the blatantly obvious statement. It is short, efficient, and accurate. The problem is that it’s boring to read. Why is it boring, though? What makes that statement, in and of itself, boring? What makes it poor fiction?
- It’s too efficient: it rushes through what most of us, in real life, would like to savor (happiness).
- It doesn’t spark emotion in us as readers. This doesn’t always mean feeling the same thing the character is feeling–we might be hating this character right now, because, oh, he’s forcing this woman to marry him.
- It doesn’t give us a vicarious glimpse into the character’s mind or feelings.
Type two is “show, don’t tell.” It is less short, less efficient, and much less accurate. We can’t say for sure whether the character is happy or not–he’s holding a woman’s hand and skipping. Probably he’s happy. Not definitely. But probably. But it is also better fiction. Some writers (Hemingway) can stop at this point and just write what is objectively going on, and leave enough between the lines that an entire story can be inferred from a few sparse lines. Most writers, however, don’t do this.
What are the limitations of “show, don’t tell”:
- It requires some serious detective work on the part of the reader to put together the emotions of the characters and assumes that the writer is a master at laying down clues.
- It doesn’t spark emotion. If the readers feel emotions during a story primarily based on “show, don’t tell,” then the emotions are mostly coming from the reader: the reader is a talented empath or has very similar assumptions to the author. Others may find the work dry or belittling.
- It doesn’t give us a glimpse into the character’s mind or feelings. Again, a good empath or someone who’s gone through a similar experience might pick up on this stuff; others will insert emotions willy-nilly.
Type three is tight POV writing, giving all statements in the story directly from the brain of the character. It is (in my unmasterful hands) much longer, less efficient–but it contains a lot of non-blatant emotion.
- It still requires some detective work, but the work isn’t in pure, observable facts, but also the opinions and observations of the character, which provide more information.
- It sparks emotion, even if it’s contempt for this guy taking things for granted.
- It gives us a strong glimpse of the character’s thoughts and feelings.
The difference here is that instead of telling you the character’s feelings or showing you the character’s actions as though they were a doll (both 3rd-person distant or omniscient POV things), I’ve brought the POV in very tight, so that I, the author, am not in the picture. There is nobody “telling” you this story, only the character being happy and sharing his opinion.
Get into the character’s head and see, hear, feel, taste, touch, etc., what the character does, colored by the emotions and opinions of the character. This is easier said than done. Start by 1) inserting the five main senses into your writing, from the character’s POV, and 2) typing in bits of various other writers’ work that seem to be highly emotional without actually naming the emotion. There are a million ways to do this.
Does that mean that steps 1 and 2 have no place in writing? Of course not. It’s just a matter of knowing when to use them.
If you want to keep a reader from experiencing the same emotion as a character, by all means, tell them “He was happy.” If you want to tell the reader that the character’s lying to themselves–”He was happy” is a decent clue.
A trick in mysteries is often to write most of the book in that third type of writing, highly personal and emotional, and hide the clues to what the character is really feeling in type 2 clues (try The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for a good example of this, or even The Maltese Falcon).
Professional writers use all three types all the time–it’s just that they use them on purpose, to get the reader to experience a particular emotion in a particular way.
The Maltese Falcon.
She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a slim boyish face. She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said: “There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.”
She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.
First paragraph: Spade’s secretary. Second paragraph: the client.
These are mostly type 2 details, observable facts, but they’re provided within the framework of a type 3 character who happens to be a detective and very much about the observable facts. Type 3 details (opinions) for secretary (some of them): lanky, sunburned, clung, playful, slim, boyish. Type 3 details (opinions) for client: pliantly, slender, erect, high-breasted, narrow, darkly, brightly, glistened, timid.
In spade’s opinion, the secretary is a good girl, and he loves her, but doesn’t particularly want to sleep with her. On the other hand, the client is a femme fatale, both “weak” (pliant, slender, narrow, timid) and sexy-looking (erect, high-breasted), as well as threateningly dangerous (darkly, glistened).
We know from these two paragraphs how he feels about these two women without him having to say; we’re also provided physical descriptions of the two characters (handy) as well as some foreshadowing about the ending.
The Haunting of Hill House.
Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends. This was owing largely to the eleven years she had spent caring for her invalid mother, which had left her with some proficiency as a nurse and an inability to face strong sunlight without blinking. She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair. Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words. Her name had turned up on Dr. Montague’s list because one day, when she was twelve years old and her sister was eighteen, and their father had been dead for not quite a month, showers of stones had fallen on their house, without any warning or any indication of purpose or reason, dropping from the ceilings, rolling loudly down the walls, breaking windows and pattering maddeningly on the roof. The stones continued intermittently for three days, during which time Eleanor and her sister were less unnerved by the stones than by the neighbors and sightseers who gathered daily outside the front door, and by their mother’s blind, hysterical insistence that all of this was due to malicious, backbiting people on the block who had had it in for her ever since she came. After three days Eleanor and her sister were removed to the house of a friend, and the stones stopped falling, nor did they ever return, although Eleanor and her sister and her mother went back to living in the house, and the feud with the entire neighborhood was never ended. The story had been forgotten by everyone except the people Dr. Montague consulted; it had certainly been forgotten by Eleanor and her sister, each of whom had supposed at the time that the other was responsible.
This is the paragraph introducing the main character, a few pages in from the opening, which introduces 1) the house, 2) Dr. Montague and his plan to invite possible psychics to the house, and then 3) Eleanor.
In this paragraph, we see lots of type 1 stuff; it comes right out and tells us who Eleanor hates and loves. This serves a couple of purposes. 1) We don’t actually have to suffer through Eleanor’s life before she came to the house. It’s miserable, and it’s backstory, moving on. 2) It conceals the fact that Eleanor hates someone else even more than she hates the people named here. Writers: we’re tricky.
There are lots of type 2 details, too: the whole story about the mysterious stone-dropping…and the fact that she has no memory of it…and the fact that she blamed her sister for it. And lots of other things.
It looks like a paragraph full of nothing but type 1 and 2 details, until you read the entire book and realize that Eleanor is not to be trusted: all of the things in this paragraph are true, but none of them tell the whole story. In Eleanor’s opinion, things are simple and straightforward. Later in the story, Eleanor opens up and there’s a ton of type 3 writing–but as you can see, lots of reasons to use type 1 and type 2.
Interesting bit of trivia, the main story (after the frame story) of ‘Salem’s Lot starts with a quote from The Haunting of Hill House.
By the time he had passed Portland going north on the turnpike, Ben Mears had begun to feel a not unpleasurable tingle of excitement in his belly. It was September 5, 1975, and summer was enjoying her final grand fling. The trees were bursting with green, the sky was a high, soft blue, and just over the Falmouth town line he saw two boys walking a road parallel to the expressway with fishing rods on their shoulders like carbines.
He switched to the travel lane, slowed to the minimum turnpike speed, and began to look for anything that would jog his memory. There was nothing at first, and he tried to caution himself against almost sure disappointment. You were nine then. That’s twenty-five years of water under the bridge. Places change. Like people.
In those days the four-lane 295 hadn’t existed. If you wanted to go to Portland from the Lot, you went out Route 12 to Falmouth and then got on Number 1. Time had marched on.
Stop that shit.
But it was hard to stop. It was hard to stop when–
A big BSA cycle with jacked handlebars suddenly roared past him in the passing lane, a kid in a T-shirt driving, a girl in a red cloth jacket and huge mirror-lensed sunglasses riding pillion behind him. They cut in a little too quickly and he overreacted, jamming on his brakes and laying both hands on the horn. The BSA sped up, belching blue smoke from its exhaust, and the girl jabbed her middle finger back at him.
He resumed speed, wishing for a cigarette. His hands were trembling slightly. The BSA was almost out of sight now, moving fast. The kids. The goddamned kids. Memories tried to crowd in on him, memories of a more recent vintage. He pushed them away. He hadn’t been on a motorcycle in two years. He planned never to ride on one again.
Here we see the character’s emotions do a 180. The writer tells us that the character feels “a not unpleasurable tingle of excitement,” but he doesn’t say, “He felt excited.” The character is one who analyzes himself regularly throughout the book–an intellectual trying to stay in touch with his emotions. The writer doesn’t analyze the character’s emotions, that is–the character does, through his own senses and opinions.
There isn’t a line of this story that isn’t 100% type-3 writing first and foremost…but there are a few type-2 clues in there, too: Places change. Like people. Time had marched on. Then: But it was hard to stop. It was hard to stop when–
The character, in a good mood, tells himself some lies: places change, people change, time moves on. But really it hasn’t; he’s still suffering from the accidental death of his wife in a motorcycle accident, and he’s coming back to ‘Salem’s Lot in order to conquer a life-long nightmare he picked up from Marsten House, and no, people haven’t really changed, as we see shortly after this section, when we start flipping through the heads of a number of townspeople.
There are a ton of other things going on in these sections, of course–but I hope you’re seeing that the general trick is to make sure that you, the writer, are solidly seeing the world through the character’s eyes; it’s the matrix through which you can tell the story without being blatant, even if, sometimes, you use techniques that appear blatant on the face of things.