All writers stand together when it comes to one directive: Show, Don’t Tell. Let’s face it: telling by saying “Maria was annoyed” is almost always going to be less interesting than showing by saying “Maria rolled her eyes.” But showing isn’t easy, so in light of that, I’m diving into a blog series on different techniques you can use to “Show, Not Tell.” This week’s topic:
Using the Right Verbs
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ‘Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Agency of Emotions
The words “was” or “felt” are often used to TELL emotions: Edward WAS frustrated. Karen FELT sorrow. The problem here isn’t just telling. “Was” is a boring SOB (state-of-being) verb, and felt is a filter word which separates us from the character. I recommend doing a Ctrl-F for both of these and nixing as many as possible.
But how to replace them? Here’s the trick: let the emotions have the verbs. Frustration can tear through Edward. Sorrow can burn in Karen’s gut like a blowtorch. Here are good emotion nouns you can affix to powerful verbs:
Sadness: defeat, loss, memory, anxiety, despair, doubt, dread, grief, heartache.
Happiness: joy, laughter, a sense of weightlessness, charisma, delight, awe.
Anger: hatred, resentment, bile, heat, fury, rage, revulsion, impatience, passion.
Fear: terror, chills, apprehension, horror, bile, suspicion, unease, worry.
If you’ve got dialogue, then you’ve got about zero reason to TELL us how any of the characters feel. Dialogue tags are useful tools for getting our characters’ emotions across. NOTE: anyone who’s read any articles on dialogue knows that using fancy dialogue tags is not always the best idea. However, I’m covering some of the subtler tags that, if used only once (possibly twice) per conversation, should work nicely:
Sadness: wept, sobbed, sniffled, managed, wailed, pleaded, whined, murmured.
Happiness: squealed, sang, sighed, chattered, trilled, gushed, cooed, piped (up).
Anger: blustered, bellowed, barked, demanded, muttered, retorted, snarled, snapped.
Fear: confessed, admitted, mumbled, stammered, whimpered, blubbered, squeaked.
Changing it Up
In so many stories, emotions are depicted through the constant use of the same actions over and over again. Take, for example, happiness, where we see a lot of laughing, blushing, smiling, giggling, grinning, and chuckling. This is all well and good, but the problem arises when verbs like these are crammed together and overused. “Grinning” and “smiling” are almost the same thing, and when they happen in consecutive paragraphs, we are picturing the same stuff over and over. If people are constantly making noises of amusement, they stop being real. Real people don’t sit around chuckling over every single moment of their lives.
The same goes for other emotions. Sobbing and crying for sadness, getting red-faced or making fists for anger, shivering and quivering for fear. The trick is to change it up with new verbs like these:
Sadness: slumped, sank, curled, leaned forehead against, shook, collapsed, stared at.
Happiness: spun, relaxed, daydreamed, toyed with, ran fingers along, spread.
Anger: grunted, stomped, stormed, sauntered, dug into, gripped, slammed, pounded.
Fear: huddled, pulled knees up, paced, (eyes) darted, whirled, crouched, fiddled with.
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