5

For example, Amanda just lost a battle in her life. When she met her best friend and mother, she lost it and started crying. The other characters comforted her with a hug, some talks, and some pats on the back.

Instead of saying 'he reached for her shoulders, he extended his arms, she held her cheeks/face, etc', how can I get better at describing such sentimental human interactions?

In short, how do I show (but not tell) the way the mother and best friend physically interact with the character - Amanda - in the example?

7

Answer:

There are many tricks. But beware of symptomology. We are told that phrases like the examples below are 'showing,' but they are not the mark of good published authors. They are symptomology. Some is OK, but try to dig deeper.

Her cheeks grew wet.

He clenched his jaw.

She took a shuddering breath.

Instead, feel free to tell in a word or two--and then augment with something 'outside the box.'

An easy trick to remember is to have your viewpoint character notice something that no one else would, and reflect on it. Your goal is to evoke feelings in the reader--not to just show your characters having feelings.

Stunned, he sat there, watching his mother lightly trace the tabletop. Dad had made that table out of the oak in the back yard. Jake remembered when the tree had fallen. Dad had said it held too many good memories not to use, and they'd milled it. Widow makers, those oaks were sometimes called.

Mom always ran her fingers along the table when she missed Dad.

No symptoms, just the kid noticing something that no one else might, and reflecting on it.

There are many tricks. You will start to pick them up, especially as you read and take notes from successful authors.

  • 2
    That's a nice perspective, and one of the few times when I've read someone pointing at the common pitfalls in the "show don't tell" mantra. – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Jan 30 at 10:38
  • @DPT I don't understand why the symptomology examples you mentioned are bad writing. They do show what the character is feeling, right? Personally, I don't like 'his cheeks grew wet' but the other 2 examples seem fine. Can you explain why these are not "the mark of good published authors"? (genuinely curious here) – souzan Jan 31 at 18:30
  • Oh hey @souzan -- They aren't 'bad,' but any of us can dig deeper, I think, in our efforts. And there's lots of tricks, and in the end it is all about balance and pacing and tension and storytelling. This blog post does a reasonable job of talking through this idea: emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/… – DPT Jan 31 at 18:38
6

One of the most touching scenes in The Lord of the Rings reads:

And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
(J.R.R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book 4, chapter 8 - The Stairs of Cirith Ungol)

What physical interactions do we have there? First:

In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.

This image, almost Pietà-like, conveys Frodo's trust, Sam's care, and the broader relationship between the two. Tolkien doesn't tell us any of it - he doesn't need to. He's just shown it.

Then comes Gollum:

slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress.

You can visualise Gollum's longing for Frodo and Sam's peace, for the intimate friendship they share, perhaps for struggling towards something bigger than oneself, or something similar - he is extending his hand towards a Pietà.

The trouble with "he extended his arms" and your other examples is that they feel almost like IKEA instructions. "Place tab A over structure B". You need the adverbs - try reading the above paragraph without them. You need the particular descriptions, like "almost the touch was a caress". It's not enough that person A touched person B - tell us how.

(Keep the Pietà to no more than one instance in your story, though - you don't want to overdo it. But for a particularly poignant scene, referring to a familiar cultural image is a possibility. Just don't explicitly say "Pietà-like". Describe it, let the reader create the image in their own mind.)

  • +1 Just for the quote from LOTR that made me want to read it back again. Completely on point. – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Jan 30 at 10:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.