Show Emotion

Spilled Ink Issue 97 Jul, 2010

It’s a theme that comes up often with writers I work with, whose prose I edit. Show, don’t tell. Give readers the look of a place, the feel of an emotion, the taste of a curry, the smell of a pungent flower...

I recently came across a gem of a book: The Elements of Story (its title is a deliberate take-off on Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style). In it, New York Times writer-editor Francis Flaherty gives non-fiction writers 50 short chapters of good advice. He calls them “rules”, but advice is better, softer, more attractive, user-friendly. In Strunk and White there are 11 suggestions for more effective writing, like “Omit needless words”, “Avoid fancy words”, “Use active voice”. Both books are ‘How-to’ and ‘How-not-to’ tips on what works and what fails to work in writing.

The first thing to a good non-fiction story is the ‘hook’; something said early in the story to attract and hold the reader’s attention. It must come within the first few lines, but as Flaherty points out, a title or sub-title can also serve as a hook. His book’s sub-title is ‘Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing’. That sure caught my eye, for non-fiction is what we do here at ECS Nepal magazine. I was hooked.

From then on, of course, the story itself must proceed well, and end well. It must show readers the way with emotion-catching imagery. If there’s serious emotion involved, hooking and keeping the reader is not easy. In Flaherty’s Chapter 3, titled ‘White knuckles’, he advises on ways to capture and reveal the emotions of people we interview,, or write about. “Emotions,” he says “are abstract, and describing them is hard. But the writer must try, for an article without emotion is like a sun-bleached shirt.”

There! He’s done it! He’s shown us with salient imagery, in the turn of a phrase, what lack of emotion looks like. He could have said it’s bland; but bland is bland and easily forgotten. You’ll not soon forget the look and feel of that sun-bleached shirt?

Some ways to show peoples’ emotions are by quoting a poignant comment or describing body language, for example. Instead of telling us that a character is worried, angry, delighted, anxious, defeated, or indignant, Flaherty says, show us how she looks or what she’s doing. His examples are: white knuckles, drumming fingers, arched eyebrows, clenched fist, downcast eyes.

At an art show, does someone express delight with flashing eyes and upraised hands. Show us! On trek across the seemingly endless arid wasteland of upper Mustang, does your companion express wonder in his eyes at the vastness of it? Show us!

I remember the first time I heard a friend describe seeing alpineglow on Machhapuchare from Pokhara. It was like an epiphany, he said, glimpsing that vibrant shimmer of light on the mountain top within a few moments of sunset. It came as an ascending band of light – yellow at first, graduating to rosy pink, then purple. He didn’t tell us how beautiful, picturesque or exciting it was (too trite). Rather, he showed us its meaning to him through metaphor. He’d been suffering culture shock, he said (he’d just arrived in Nepal), and that momentary glimpse of special light moving across the cold, icy, jagged peak brightened his spirits, telling him that something extraordinary was happening, that he’d get over it. In that moment of heightened emotion, he met the subtle hues of last light with dancing eyes and a muffled exclamation of amazement. His shared epiphany was infectious.

If we write to show emotion, we are writing to please our readers. Otherwise, as Flaherty might say (maybe he’s seen Machhapuchare), just telling us it’s beautiful is like comparing it to one of his sun-bleached shirts. Bland. n
Good writing!

Don Messerschmidt may be contacted at See Francis Flaherty’s The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), and Wm. Strunk Jr & E.B. White’s Elements of Style, (New York: MacMillan, 2007). (The first edition came out in 1918.)