Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Writing YA: Showing Intense Emotions

I've been writing fiction for 13 whole months now (but I wrote about 500K words in the last year. Now THAT was intense). I believe I still have a lot to learn. Want to know one of the first things I learned about writing fiction, though?

Showing is better than telling.

I know, I know. DUH.

And yet, many of us have to work to avoid telling. I beta for some talented writers, and I often peruse samples at the various forums. Uh, and I read my own writing. Even though we all know to show and not tell, most of us have to really think about how to do that.

When it comes to writing strong emotions,  instead of saying our character is scared, we know to describe her physical sensations. We say her heart is pounding. Her palms are sweating. Her ears are ringing. Her breath is sawing in and out of her lungs. Her skin is tingling. Her knees are knocking together. She's trembling. Shaking. Wobbly. Jumpy.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sometimes it's hard to come up with different ways of describing an intense emotion, right? Especially since so many of those descriptions are just straight up clichéd. Trust me, I'm right there with y'all.

So here's another way to show a character's intense emotions:

The pacing and organization of the narration or inner thoughts.

I'm taking a page from the haunting Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. It's about a girl who's been living in the clutches of a sadistic pedophile for years. It is extraordinary. And thoroughly harrowing.

As I was reading Living Dead Girl, I noticed something. Although the entire book is narrated by the MC (the pedophile only calls her "Alice", but I can't bear to) and it's deep in her point of view, she rarely says she's terrified or scared or upset or ... anything. She sometimes talks about what's happening to her body as a result of a strong emotion, but not often, because she's convinced she feels nothing at all. And yet, at certain moments, her terror is obvious.

How? When she's really distressed, dreading what's going to happen or what is happening, her inner thoughts and narration in general become incredibly jumbled. Her sentences run together. They get longer and the punctuation disappears, leaving this:

... and I am talking, babbling, grinding out words through a cracked throat I have a plan never hurt you never leave you love you please love you please ...
and this:

His eyes are gleaming and he stands up and he has been thinking about her while I've been gone and then whispers what he will do to her, what I will help him do ...

I don't need her to tell me she's terrified or full of dread. I can see it. I can FEEL it. She doesn't need to tell me her heart is pounding. I know it is. And mine, when I read it, certainly is. Without a single emotion label or description of physical sensation, I get it. I'm right there with her, freaked out for her and hurting for her. 

When human beings are in a state of high emotional activation, our bodies aren't the only things affected. When we're panicking or enraged or confused, our thoughts become scattered and disorganized, or we get hyperfocused on the smallest details. Our minds are so complicated; the most random things pass through them, or our inner dialogue speeds up. Sometimes our thoughts become nearly silent, wordless, because we're so overwhelmed.

Clearly, losing your punctuation isn't the only way to accomplish the goal of showing intense emotion. You can make your tone more staccato and clipped by shortening your sentences, phrases and words. You can show disorganization and confusion with sentence fragments and rapid transitions. You can switch from one style to another within a scene to convey a major change in the character's thinking or state of mind.

Of course, everything you write is in the service of the story, so you have to keep it tight. You have to be selective and choose your words just right. You have to do just enough to convey the perfect intensity, but not too much, or you'll totally confuse the reader or bog down your pace. And no matter what your technique, you have to know the language--grammar, punctuation, and all--to be able to do this well. You can't break the rules until you know them inside and out. Sometimes it's art. Sometimes it's just bad writing.

But I save that for the editing. Sometimes, if I'm writing a scene like this, I just close my eyes and type. (Yes, I can type fast without looking. It's how I survived grad school.) When I do that, it helps me access the character's thoughts--I just let go, and I write everything that's going through my character's mind. I end up cutting a huge portion of that, sure, and shaping whatever's left, but I think the flavor of that emotion can be preserved if I don't edit myself the first time around. That's just me, though.

So what about you--how do you show a character's intense emotion?

(Oh, and I'm not done with Living Dead Girl. On Friday, I'll be posting about Scott's characterization of her MC and the effects of trauma on young people's brains.)


  1. I love that you're chatting about pacing, but mostly the organization and narration of a character's inner thoughts. It is so important to write by showing and also to simply say what we mean. Write concisely. But it's also of major importance when we feed the audience information.

    I tend to write complex. Yeah, just be glad you're not in my head. Hah... Because of this, my biggest struggle is when to tell the reader certain information. It's an everyday learning process, isn't it.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Great way to further explain "showing" vs. "telling." thanks

  3. "Sometimes it's just bad writing" lol *ducks head under table*

    Kidding. Only partly. ;-) But, you have given my a wonderful idea!


  4. Great post. I did have a critter delete my mc inner thoughts when showing emotions. She wanted more action. Someone else complained, and I added some of the thoughts back in.

    The great thing about Living Dead Girl is that you feel the mc's numb reality. You're not left with the feeling that Elizabeth forgot to include the physical reactions. Just shows what a brilliant writer she is.

  5. i was reading this wiki article called thought disorder. and some of it kinda echoed this post... like the way that language comes differently to people while under stress (although the article was really refering to people with specific conditions- there were bits that relate to most people under stress- i would think)...
    but the change in the thought process really should be incorporated into writing. thanks for the wonderful example... oh man does that story sound sad...

  6. Aspiring_x--it IS sad, but in its own way, triumphant

    Stina--of course, inner thoughts can sometimes bog things down (I often make this mistake and have to trim). That balance can be so elusive, right?

    JD and Em-musing--thanks!

    Salarsen--you're correct--we have to think of our reader. We write for pleasure (I hope), but also for the readers' pleasure. We have to give them the info (both emotional and cognitive) to get the story so they can be right there with the characters. That's why extra sets of eyes (in the form of beta readers!!!) are so essential.

  7. "I just close my eyes and type." I do much the same. I find I learn a lot about my characters by letting their internal monologue ramble on. In the first draft, at least.

    I do tend use small details to help show emotion. Things such as what a character looks at, what she notices, how she stands, sits, etc. Goes to show the smallest details from order of thoughts to how many times a character blinks can help portray the strongest emotions.

    Thanks for the post!

  8. Very informative post! Love your take on a common topic.

  9. Wonderful post! I never thought of doing it this way. I'm going to try it with my next story and see the end result. Thanks for posting

  10. This is great! Using the character's thoughts - what they're thinking about, how they're thinking about it, the flavor of the words and order of them - are perfect tools for describing emotion without the cliches. Tough to do, but works really well on the page! :)

  11. Great post, and a suggestion I'll definitely be taking on board. Thanks :)