Original Fic Tip: Show, Don't Tell: Don't Name An Emotion
I dislike hard rules in writing - with a couple of exceptions. One rule, which I try to follow but really struggle with, is to not name emotions. Here are are some tips on how to avoid doing just that, and is another article from the same website I quoted from yesterday.
Never Name an Emotion
This “rule” is total hyperbole. Of course it’s fine, in certain contexts, to say, “everyone was happy” or “a flinch of sadness creased his face.”
But I constantly repeat this little phrase—“never name an emotion“—as my first line of defense against slipping into what is, perhaps, the easiest of all tells.
Emotion can be a difficult thing to describe, much less evoke. We can show characters falling in love, holding hands, laughing, kissing—but can we be sure readers know they’re happy? Or what if they’re going through all these motions, but it’s just on the surface and, really, they’re extremely unhappy? It’s so much easier to just name the emotion.
And this holds true for more than just emotions. You can also add the following slogans to your repertoire:
Never name a sense (e.g., “she felt cold”; “he saw the truck”; “she smelled the coffee”; “it tasted sweet”; “he heard the explosion”).
Never name an action (e.g., “she drove the car”; “he got dressed”).
Obviously, these are extreme guidelines. (In fact, “show, don’t tell” is itself an extreme statement, since there will be moments in every single scene where telling is the best choice. We’d be better off rephrasing the rule to “show before you tell.”)
But because telling is so much easier and, often, so much more natural than showing, it’s good to keep these phrases running through your head. That way, whenever you find yourself typing, “she was happy,” you’ll be more likely to stop and reexamine your choices. When you do, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Is naming the emotion/sense/action really the best choice for this scene?
She was happy.
2. Could you rephrase with a stronger, less obvious verb?
3. Would you get more mileage out of an action if you dramatized it?
She picked up the train of her gown and twirled around, dancing through the empty garden.
4. Instead of mentioning a sensory experience, could you describe what the character is sensing?
The wet smell of earth, still cool from the night, filled her throat, and she closed her eyes and breathed.
5. Can you imply the character’s emotion through the context—either supportively or ironically?
He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
He smiled at her, and she forced herself to smile back.
Now go forth and write!