The smartest advice you’ll hear about showing and telling emotion in your writing

Cat Mind Blown

I love watching writing videos on YouTube. Often it’s information I already know, but listening always inspires me to get back to my own writing. (I’m almost done with the first draft of my third manuscript, guys! Eeee!)

That said, sometimes I stumble across a gem of insight. That happened to me yesterday when I watched novel editor Ellen Brock’s video on how to describe emotion in your novel without being melodramatic or cliché.

Why do I love her advice so much?

  1. Because soooo much writing advice gets our brains stuck on showing, never telling, when telling is a useful tool.
  2. Because there’s a ton of advice out there that only encourages writers to show emotion in cliché ways, like “her hands clenched into fists” to demonstrate anger.
  3. As Ellen points out, no one in real life is 100 percent transparent about their emotions at all times. We’re more often concealing what we’re really feeling.

The key is, as Ellen says, introspection.

“What your character thinks, how they interpret the world, how they interpret their emotions — that is a lot more important than what they feel,” she says.

“If you pull a gun on someone, pretty much everybody in the world is going to feel afraid in that situation. But that doesn’t tell the reader anything about your character. That’s not special, that’s not unique. That’s just the obvious reaction to that situation. What is special and unique is what your character thinks.”

Ellen also gives some examples of what this looks like in Stephen King’s novel Misery, including how he uses this technique in combination with showing or telling, so definitely give her video a watch!

I’ve always felt this way about describing emotion in my gut, but it’s so helpful to have someone else validate that idea and put it clearly into words.

What do you think is important about showing, telling, and describing emotion in a story?

The importance of vulnerability

Nobody wants to show themselves failing. Yet that’s exactly what Kim Chance did in her latest video.

Let’s redefine that: Kim isn’t actually failing. She’s acquired a literary agent, which means she has a better chance of succeeding than the vast majority of writers whose manuscripts never get accepted. (See my interview with Kim here.) But the feeling of failing is admitting that you don’t have it together, that things might not work out, and that you’re scared shitless.

It takes a lot of courage to say, “Hey, I might not pull this off.” It takes even more courage to take a step closer to success, in front of the whole world — like Kim has on YouTube — and then fall short. We all go through this. But nobody wants to say, “I’m in the middle of the messy part that could be my failure,” with everyone watching. We only want to say, “I made it to the other side, and whew, it was tough, BUT I DID IT.”

Yet when Kim exposed herself — cried on camera, ditched the bubbly-happy persona she usually shows us, and let herself be completely vulnerable — she sent a message that was way more powerful and inspiring than any “We can do it!” speech. Because she showed us we’re not alone.

Of course, we all realize other writers have doubts and anxiety like we do. But to actually see that? Totally different.

“I guess what I lie awake thinking about is, what if it doesn’t happen?” Kim said. “What if [my book] Keeper doesn’t find a home? What if it doesn’t get published?”

She said, “I’ve been on submission a couple months now, and I’m scared. I’m really scared.”

That wasn’t the only fear she shared. She challenged herself to write the first draft of a new manuscript by June, before her baby is born. But she admitted she’s made no progress since that announcement.

“I am crippled with this fear that I can’t write a book. Isn’t that dumb?” she said. “But I just have this fear that I’m a one-hit wonder. I wrote Keeper and that was awesome, but what if I can’t do it again? What if that was it? What if that was my bout of creativity there in that one book, and now I’m trying to write the book of my dreams, the book that I would absolutely die to write, and what if I can’t do it?”

Yes, yes, a million times YES. I recently finished my second book last year and started querying it, and I’m already paralyzed by this fear. How can I move on to begin another project after this last one took two years of my life — hundreds of hours of time and energy — and nothing might happen with it? And that’s the norm. How do you find the motivation to do that all over again while facing rejection after rejection, or no response at all, from agents about the last book you wrote? How do you not get defeated by that? How do you not judge yourself by each and every “no”?

Kim said, “What if I let everybody down? What if I let [my agent] Caitlin down? What if I let you guys down? What if I let my family and my friends down? What if I let myself down? What if everything I’ve been telling myself is a lie?”

The stakes for Kim are even higher than they are for many of us. Personally, I don’t often share, outside of the internet, that I write books. That I spent night after night, week after week, working on a manuscript. Because as soon as you do that, people expect results. They don’t understand that the normal process is very slow-moving, that some authors don’t get published until their third or fourth or tenth book — and others, never at all. People think no news or bad news is a sign that you’re doomed to fail, that you’re a hack writer, that you’re chasing an impossible dream. And it’s hard not to believe them.

Kim said, “I know that somewhere out there, there’s somebody watching this who’s shaking their head, saying, ‘That’s me.’ I don’t want anybody to feel alone during this process. So as defeated as I feel right now, I’m gonna tell myself … I’m gonna keep telling myself what I’m always telling you guys. That dreams don’t work unless you do. And that no matter how hard it gets, you’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to keep fighting.”

Every part of a writer’s journey is tough, she said. And it is. It absolutely is. “Writing a book is hard,” Kim said. “Querying a book is hard. Writing a sequel is hard. Being on submission is hard. Being a writer is hard, guys! … But it’s one of the best jobs in the world. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. And I’m so glad to be a part of it.”

Me too, Kim. Me fucking too.

God must play Pokémon — it’s an evolution thing

YouTube user “OmmyNoms” has created an animated video asking, “Why is it some creatures never evolve, like crocodiles?”

His answer is that God plays Pokémon and presses B to stop their evolution.

It’s a joke, of course — and one that everyone who’s played at least one Pokémon video game will understand. When you raise a pocket monster (or Pokémon) in the games, it usually “evolves” into a different, stronger form when it reaches a certain level. But players can hold B to keep the creature at its current form, halting its evolution.

OmmyNoms didn’t want to sound like he was disputing Darwin or spewing false information, so he wrote the following disclaimer. It’s a bit ridiculous that he had to, of course, but the Internet will be the Internet:

Ok guys I think some of you have misunderstood a key element of this cartoon, probably my fault, I thought most societies these days were clued in on Evolution but clearly some are not (a lot of Americans seem to be making this mistake). I do know Crocodiles evolved from another creature (the Phytosaurs) and I know they have evolved in the 225 million years they’ve been around to some level or another. This cartoon is a joke, it’s a bit of light humour that ignores science for a bit of fun, like Spongebob or Dexters Lab would. I am not trying to preach that Evolution doesn’t make sense, it does! I am not saying this is genuinely what I believe, if I seriously wondered this question I wouldn’t make an animation, I’d go on Yahoo Asks like a normal person! So come on, try to understand this is just a light hearted joke and don’t get too upset that it isn’t hard fact.

Also let’s keep the insults to a minimum ok? Kids view this site too, show them how to act, don’t be one.

Source: Kotaku