7

Tell:

Andy looked angry

Show:

Andy scrunched his eyebrows together, he gritted his teeth and glared. His skin turned a bright red making him look like a raging demon.

Are there other ways to 'Show' other than to list bodily actions?
Or without using the word 'Like'?

  • 1
    Cold air whistled through the crack in the windowpane. The sudden draft made the fire flare in the fireplace while shadows stretched their ghastly fingers up the wall. Which is to say, you can do a lot with ambiance. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 18 '15 at 23:20
  • This belongs in the answer area. – user8727 Jan 19 '15 at 2:26
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    Actually I don't see much difference between "looked angry" and "look like a raging demon". Both are telling. How about: "Slowly Andy raised his head and looked at Joan. With a gasp Joan stumbled back from his glare, falling over the chair behind her, raising her hands to fend him off when Andy came around the desk to help her." You show the effect of Andy's anger. With your superior skill, I'm sure you can do this better than my quick example :-P – user5645 Jan 19 '15 at 8:58
  • That was fair I suppose. I am capable of shocking my readers, but this "Show don't tell" rule is something that's causing me to struggle. – user8727 Jan 19 '15 at 13:56
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To see the answer, think in clearer terms. "Show, don't tell" is about evidence vs. inference. This advice matters because readers like to be given evidence and to make inferences themselves. That is worth posting on your wall: GIVE THEM EVIDENCE. LET THEM INFER.

You can chase down the evidence by repeatedly asking yourself, "How do you know?" The answers will eventually hit bottom.

In normal life, the thoughts, emotions, motivations, and intentions of others are private and can only be inferred from observable behavior or direct report. These are both evidence, but direct report doesn't always (or usually) work in a scene. Having a character report their internal states spoils the fun.

"Andy was angry" is completely inferential. The only way you could conclude that Andy was angry is by inference. You can get a reader to infer that Andy is angry by giving evidence.

"Andy looked angry" is partly evidentiary. It tells you Andy's appearance. A reader could also infer that Andy is angry from Andy's saying that he is angry (while looking plain or talking on the phone), from Andy's slamming a door, etc.

"Andy looked angry" is bad because it doesn't get to the root evidence. Anger isn't something that you can witness directly. It's something you infer from context and a range of behaviors.

How do you know that Andy looked angry? If there's a new answer to this, you haven't reached bottom. A possible answer is, "Andy scrunched his eyebrows together," which is bottom/root evidence. How do you know that Andy scrunched his eyebrows together? Well, because you saw him scrunch his eyebrows together. There's no new evidence. You've hit bottom.

There's still lots of other evidence that someone is angry. Put Andy in a situation that would make most people angry, such as being cheated, openly insulted, or punched in the face. Establish a pattern of behavior that means Andy is angry; perhaps he always gets quiet when angry.

If you want to improve upon "Andy looked angry", you are confining yourself to visual facts about Andy's appearance from the start, so the answer is easy: you must give visual clues. In this case, you might try consulting "The Emotion Thesaurus" by Ackerman and Puglisi.

If visual clues don't satisfy you, look to context or the other senses.

You can also prime a reader for a particular inference, especially by making them feel something you want attributed to a character. Introduce anger into the environment or use terms with violent connotations just before the information about Andy. Compare "The subway doors banged shut. Andy crinkled his brow." to "The subway doors eased shut. Andy crinkled his brow."

A "like" simile is just a shortcut; it lets you skip to another description and feeling. One of the best I've read ("as if to shoo away gnats") is from Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life":

Sister James had been about to say something. Her mouth was open. She looked at the arrow I was aiming at her, then looked at me. In her presence my thoughtlessness forsook me. I knew exactly what I had been doing. We stood like that for a time. Finally I pointed the arrow at the ground. I unnotched it and started to make some excuse, but she closed her eyes at the sound of my voice and waved her hands as if to shoo away gnats.

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    This is pretty much the best explanation I have read so far. So if I understand it correctly, "show, don't tell" is a recommendation to describe evidence about something indirectly (and let the reader infer it) rather than directly stating that something. So through a slightly modified quote by Anton Chekhov, it could be expressed as: Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Rather Describe the Glint of Light on Broken Glass – user100487 Jan 18 '17 at 23:53
3

Body language and facial expressions work miracles. Using your example, if a person is scrunching their eyebrows, gritting their teeth, and glaring, we can safely assume that they are angry. The other sentence is kind of extraneous, passing into 'tell' territory.

Speech patterns are another good way to show emotions, for example a person who is angry may swear, repeat words, shout, cut off their sentences, or might be too angry to speak at all.

1

The question is a good example of why show don't tell is bad advice. It results in all sorts of silly overblown and tedious writing.

Give them evidence, let them infer is getting a little closer to the mark, but it still runs afoul of the basic writing rule which is to be a clear and direct as possible.

The real key here is to consider how we experience the emotions of others. The anger of strangers is mostly annoying. It might be a little bit frightening if they are violent, but otherwise it does not move us. The anger of those we know, on the other hand, engages our sympathy. We feel the sharpness and anguish of their anger because we know why they are angry, what they had hoped for and what they have lost. We fear for them, of for those they might harm, because we are invested in the story and its outcomes.

Our reaction to the anger of a character, therefore, is not based on the immediate description of that anger. Florid description of physical symptoms of their anger will be merely annoying unless they give us a reason to fear for their health of conduct (which we only do if we are invested in the story).

But set it up right, make us love or hate the character, make us understand what they love and value, and then show the betrayal that robs them of that thing, and you hardly have to describe their anger at all.

When words fall flat it is almost always because the thing they describe has not been set up properly. No amount of florid detail, no piling on of evidence from which to infer the emotion, makes any difference at that point. It is simply too late.

The storyteller achieves their effects through the power of story, not through the force of language. "Show don't tell" deceives us into thinking we can solve story problems with tricks of language. The play's the thing in which we catch the conscience of the king.

1

I consider the author's job to assist the imagination of the reader, so they can sense the scene and feelings of the characters.

The difference between showing and telling is that showing describes a scene and telling gives us a fact and leaves it to the reader to imagine on their own. such "facts" tend to be abstractions, like "angry", that can evoke very different imaginative experiences amongst readers, which means the author did not do a very good job of assisting them:

Showing narrows "angry" down to how Andy shows anger, or how Andy's anger affects Briana. So the body language is definitely more descriptive and specific about Andy's anger, but visual reaction is only ONE sense, and we have a dozen of them: I don't expect Andy's anger to evoke any sense of smell or taste or tactile senses, but we can sense the emotion in words.

To show better, consider the consequences of the facts you want to list. Andy is angry. Okay, why does this fact matter? What happens because Andy is angry? Yes, he has some look, but you are bored with that. Does he use shocking profanity when angry? Or is he repressed and use replacements for profanity? How does his tone of voice change, is he cold and measured and threatening, or does he get louder? Does he have a violent reaction and throw the snow globe against the wall? Or a pencil? Or slam his hand on the desk?

How does Andy's anger affect the person he is angry at? Do they wilt, or grow defensive, or are they a fighter that returns his anger in kind? What about their words? How do they feel?

Remember you are assisting the reader's imagination in experiencing (not just seeing and hearing) your story. Showing requires moving from the abstract fact to concrete details that leave very little choice in the reader's imagination, so they are imagining what YOU imagined.

To do that requires you more fully imagine the details of the scene, the choreography and feelings of the characters in the room, which is work, so you can pick the most salient few details that can stand for the whole scene.

If all you can think of is bodily movements, I suspect you are not fully imagining the scene, you are stuck in the trap of trying to describe a movie. But in a screenplay, all they do is tell "Andy is angry," and leave that up to the actor and director to portray visually (unless you tell them Andy is angry, and kicks the cat across the room).

Often, trying to describe the appearance of human feelings will fall into cliché and purple prose. It is better to show the consequences of the particular concrete type of anger Andy is feeling, to constrain the reader's imagination to that, and appeal to the reader's other senses: The meaning conveyed by the volume and pacing of the voice, the word choices (profanity or otherwise) made by the angry person, the actions they take in anger, whether effective or not (e.g. pounding the desk or throwing something or roaring is not really accomplishing anything.)

The consequences upon other actors in the room, how do they feel and react? Do they feel sympathy, or empathy? Are they angry too? Are they afraid of Andy, or concerned about the damage he might do to the room? Do they worry/fear he will do something rash and out of control, or do something cold and calculating that could be even worse?

More fully imagine the scene and characters, the choreography of how people move and take action, the consequences of the anger instead of the anger itself. That can include consequences in a POV character's mind: Skip the physical details; they sense he is "angry" and this triggers memories of similar anger in their life, some breakup or disappointment or betrayal.

0

POV is powerful. If you drop into close third-person, you can color how you describe the scenery and how other characters are acting to show the state of mind of a character. The key word is projection. To an angry man, every word is a trigger word, every accidental trespass an intentional slight, every malfunctioning appliance a sign that God is out to get him. Use overloaded adjectives and violent metaphors to describe people and things around the man, but they are only a projection of what is going on inside him.

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