The Key to “Show, Don’t Tell”

What are readers looking for when they sit down with a novel? The obvious answer is a good story, well told. That means different things to different people: a heart-pounding adventure, a puzzling mystery, an insightful literary novel written in glowing prose, a romance that has you reaching for the tissue box. In all cases, though, readers are looking to connect with characters they care about and, for a while, to see the world through the eyes of those characters.

How do they connect? Emotionally.

One of the primary pleasures of reading fiction is experiencing vicariously what the point-of-view character is going through. Readers experience this through an emotional connection, by feeling what the character is feeling–that’s what gets your heart pounding during an exciting scene.  As writers, it’s our job to help readers make that connection.

I first encountered the term “emotional filter” in an essay by Kathy Jacobson in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing. In a nutshell, the emotional filter shows what the character feels at any given moment in the story. The author runs the scene through the filter of the character’s emotions, choosing language that conveys how the current situation feels to the character. The goal is not to tell the reader what those emotions are but to help the reader feel those emotions by showing what the world looks like to someone who’s sad or worried or happy or afraid or in love.

Right now, take a look out the window or across the room. Describe what you see and hear. Next, imagine that you’ve just received some bad news and look again. How do your feelings at hearing bad news color your description? One more time: Imagine you get a call to tell you something wonderful — you’ve just been offered a three-book deal, say. How would you describe the same view now?

In his wonderful craft book The Art of Fiction, John Gardner doesn’t use the term “emotional filter,” but he has some great exercises for putting it to work, such as these:

Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death.

Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.

The emotional filter works with every scene in your novel or story. And it covers all emotions, not just the big ones — I’m not talking about lapsing into sheer sentimentality. People are always feeling something — uncertainty, irritation, contentment, whatever — and readers expect fictional characters to feel intensely. Keep readers in touch with those feelings.

The emotional filter is the essence of the often-heard writing advice “show, don’t tell.” In fact, it goes beyond showing to sharing —  readers aren’t just watching your characters, they’re experiencing the story right along with them.


About nancyholzner

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