Monday, January 09, 2012

Please, don't tell me what your character is thinking

I judge a lot of contests for aspiring romance writers.  In fact, it’s a rare time of year that I don’t have a computer folder full of entries to read, some for a second time.  Over and over, I find the same weakness, and it’s something that I don’t hear addressed often in craft lessons.  Luckily, it’s one that often can be easily avoided.

 Before I launch into the words of wisdom that will make your scenes compelling and your characters memorable, let me remind you of the One True Rule of writing fiction -- there are no rules.  The only absolute in writing is that there are no absolutes.  If what I say below doesn’t make any sense to you, feel free to ignore it with my blessing.

Here goes:  Please don’t tell me, your reader, what your characters are thinking and feeling.  I’d rather you show me.  Aha, “Show, don’t tell.”  We’ve all heard this advice, and it applies here.

Whenever you write something like, “she thought, wondered, mused, pondered,” or other verbs that describe how a character thinks, you may be telling what’s going on in her head, rather than showing it.  For example, I often see passages like, “She hoped her make-up had survived the long flight so that she’d look her best when she met her new boss.”  Here, the author is telling me what’s going on in her heroine’s head rather than show it.  How about the following, instead?

“She glanced in the small mirror, but it didn’t do much to reveal how her make-up had survived the long flight.  And with no opportunity for major work on her face, she’d have to do the best with what she had.  Darn.  Her stomach was already in knots.  She’d just have to lift her chin and give her new boss the most confident smile she could muster, under the circumstances.”

I submit that that shows someone hoping her make-up is up-to-snuff for the meeting with her new boss.  You’re showing what’s going on in her head rather than telling it.

Similarly, “What, she wondered, was he thinking?”  If we’re in the character’s head we’d better know who’s doing the wondering.  In fact, we’d better be wondering right along with her.  “What was he thinking?” gets the same point across and with more immediacy.  “She wondered what was in the treasure chest” is better as “What could be in the treasure chest?”  The first reports to us about her wonder.  The second allows us to wonder along with her.

The same general principle applies to showing versus telling emotions.  When you tell us the character is angry, hates someone, loves someone, is grieving, you take us out of their feelings and prevent us from experiencing them directly.  For example, “She hated the hurt look in his eyes,” might be better as “Hurt filled his eyes.  Pain so deep, it cut into her.  Still, she couldn’t look away.  She’d caused him that pain, and she’d have to take that knowledge with her.”  Note that at no time have I mentioned her emotions.  The emotions are there, but if I’ve done my job, the reader experiences them directly instead of having them pointed out.

Similarly, “The loss hurt so much.  She’d miss her beloved grandfather for the rest of her life,” isn’t as convincing to me as “She stood near the hearth, staring at the chair her grandfather had always occupied as he’d read stories to her.  First, sitting in his lap, then at his feet, and finally as an adult in her own chair next to his.  This room would always resonate with the sound of his voice.  In fact, if she stood very still, she might hear it even now.”

I’ll share a little secret from my psychology training that I find immensely helpful in my writing.  In general (but not by any means always), when you ask someone to explain their behavior, they point to the environment around them.  For example, if you ask a spendthrift friend why she just spent thousands of dollars on a purse, she’ll likely say something like, “It’s perfect.  Just like the one my favorite movie star carries.  I had to have it.”  If you ask a careless driver why she just went through a red light, she may very well say something like, “It was really yellow.  Honest.”  If you ask someone why she cheated on her taxes, she’ll probably tell you something like “Everyone does it,” or “What are the chances I’ll get audited?”

Here’s an example from my book Always a Princess that, I hope, will illuminate what I’m talking about.

 “But that doesn’t make any sense.’ He barely kept himself from shouting, took a few breaths, and tried to calm himself. Although any reasonable person could hardly remain calm in these circumstances. As heir to the earldom of Farnham, he was the bloody catch of the whole bloody season, but for some bloody reason he wasn’t good enough for a guttersnipe like Eve Stanhope. If she was a guttersnipe. He still had no bloody idea who she was.”

 You’ll notice that my hero realizes that he’s shouting and that he’s not calm, but then, he attributes his anger to the situation he finds himself in and to the heroine‘s behavior.

 You can’t always use these techniques, and sometimes, there’s no other way to convey what’s happening in your story than to simply say, “He was furious” or “She couldn’t make heads nor tails of what he was saying.”  I do think, however, that we can all make our writing stronger by trying to get as deeply into our characters’ heads as we can.


The_Book_Queen said...

Wonderful post, Alice. I know I've done this (in the little writing I've done for myself, and especially in papers for classes way back when), though I try hard not to.

I prefer when the author does shows us rather than tell us. I've read more than a few books where I loved the premise of the book--but the writing became too heavy with telling us what was going on or what the characters were thinking and I ended up giving the book a lower rating because of it. A few times in a book is, in my opinion, acceptable-like you said, sometimes there is no other way around stating some things, and, of course, no one is perfect, and a few might slip by during editing that could have been changed after all. BUT too many of these, and it will affect the quality, and enjoyment, of the book.


Alice Gaines said...

Thanks so much for your comment. I'm glad you feel the same way.

I guess it should always be remembered that things get into books that the author didn't put there. I've had that happen a couple of times, and it's always embarrassing.

Reina said...

Thanks for this, Alice! I'm editing as well as writing new stories at the moment, so these tips are great reminders. :) I think I need to keep a list of those telling words by my computer to alert me when I've fallen into the telling trap. All best!