Jan 27 2011

Internal vs. external emotion

I know I overdo the smiles and sighing etc. Could you give me an example of showing internal workings rather than expressing something external such as a sigh or blush?Samantha, Australia

There are lots of ways that writers slip into ‘telling’ (external) rather than ‘showing’ (internal), especially when it comes to emotion. There are the obvious phrases such as: Bob was sad.

The writer is stating the fact, telling the reader what emotion Bob is feeling. Usually it is more effective to show Bob’s emotions rather than stating the fact.

Sometimes when a writer wants to show emotion, she will use an external sign of an internal response. Some examples of these external signs include smiles, frowns, sighs, shrugs, blushes, looks (such as stares and glares), and my all-time least favorite, the furrowed brow. I’m not even sure what a furrowed brow looks like or what it means, but I seldom see a manuscript that doesn’t deploy at least two furrowed brows. If I’m editing your work, you can bet I will strike through that phrase or suggest you find a different way to say it. I’ll probably furrow my brow as I hit the delete key.

Bob sighed, furrowed his brow, and began to cry.

This is now describing Bob’s facial expressions, body language, gestures and other external physical responses to illustrate Bob’s sadness. It’s better than saying ‘Bob was sad,’ at least most of the time.

Often this happens when the writer is trying to show rather than tell, but it’s only a halfway step. The writer is ‘telling’ the reader what facial expressions the character is giving, and those facial expressions then ‘show’ the emotion. It’s still a step removed from the readers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, just like there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘telling’ the reader some things. It’s all in when and how something is told or shown that makes the reader engage with the story and character. Sometimes “Bob was sad” is exactly the right sentence. Sometimes “Bob frowned” may be exactly the right sentence. Showing will generally take more words, and maybe it’s not important enough to spend any more than three words on the fact that Bob was sad.

But if Bob’s sadness is an emotional moment in which readers need to empathize with Bob, it’s worth a few more words. Describing facial expressions, sounds or body language alone doesn’t bring the reader into the character’s emotions. Adding physical actions and responses can help show the emotion.

Bob’s hand shook as he stared at the photo of his old friend, and he began to cry.

Better, but it’s still missing something – it’s flat. It describes the physical actions and response. This sentence is part showing and part telling. The writer tells the reader that Bob’s hand shook, that he stared at the photo, and that he started crying, all of which creates a ‘showing’ scene. The reader is seeing the scene, better than “Bob was sad,” but the reader isn’t feeling it first-hand. The reader is seeing the scene from the external, not the internal. 

The photo trembled as Bob remembered his old friend, and the image blurred behind his tears.

Not saying this is Pulitzer Prize stuff, but this last version shows the reader that Bob is sad. It paints a scene in the reader’s mind, and the reader can feel Bob’s reaction – his internal response. The external has almost been completely eliminated. This last version doesn’t tell me if Bob is frowning or sighing. It doesn’t even directly tell me that he is looking at the photo or that his hand is shaking or that he started crying. Those are external actions. Yes, all of those actions are there, but they aren’t ‘told’ or stated as a fact for readers. This version explores the internal response. It puts the reader inside Bob as he holds the photo in his trembling hand, he remembers, and the photo blurs.

If writing in first person, remember the narrator can’t see her own face to describe her smiles, frowns, and furrowed brows. A first-person narrator, like all of us in real life, wouldn’t usually notice when she sighs. You probably don’t stop to think, “I’m smiling now.” But in first person, or in a tight third, the character’s thoughts, feelings, and internal monologue can be used to show emotions much more effectively than describing facial expressions.

Below are a few examples from Samantha’s manuscript draft with the original wording and suggested edits. All suggested edits are merely examples of one way the sentence might be revised. There are many different ways of saying something, and it’s always up to the writer to come up with the best way that fits the writer’s style, voice and story.

ORIGINAL: I shot her daggers and refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.

 REVISE: I refused to dignify her remark with a response. She knew how important my career was to me.

Sometimes the external signs of an emotion can be eliminated completely, as the existing internal thoughts, actions and dialog show the emotion. I deleted the ‘shot her daggers’ phrase (a reference to the character giving a sharp glare). It’s not needed. The rest of this paragraph carries the full weight of the character’s irritation.

ORIGINAL: The security guard looked me up and down. ‘You his mother or something?’

I glanced down at my suit, then back up at the guy. ‘Oh, sod off!’

REVISE: The security guard eyed my business suit. ‘You his mother or something?’

‘Oh, sod off!’

I moved the reference to what she is wearing to the guard’s actions rather than have the character glance down at her clothes. She already knows what she’s wearing. Her words convey her reaction without her reviewing her own attire.

ORIGINAL: I blushed the same way I did every time David quasi flirted with me, then realised how inappropriate it was to be reacting this way with a dead guy just metres away.

REVISE: Every time David quasi-flirted like this, it awakened the giggly, embarrassed 12-year-old who still lived inside me, completely inappropriate with a dead guy metres away.

Eliminates the blush but shows from an internal perspective what she was feeling, perhaps in a way that readers can relate to. It also eliminates the filter that tells readers the character ‘realises’ something rather than just letting the realisation come through naturally.

ORIGINAL: I felt my forehead crease with surprise that the cop appeared to know me, and took a closer look at him. I may have come across him in my work, but nothing stood out.

REVISE: How did this cop know me? I gave him a closer look. Maybe we’d crossed paths before, but nothing stood out.

This revise replaces ‘I felt my forehead crease with surprise’ with the internal thought, ‘How did he know me?’ That shows her surprise from the inside rather than telling readers she was surprised and the character describing the feeling on her face.

ORIGINAL: I sighed, slipped off my heels and trudged into the lounge room.

REVISE: I slipped off my heels and trudged into the lounge room.

A simple elimination of the sigh. Slipping off her heels and ‘trudging’ (a great verb in this sentence) captures her mood. People sigh for a variety of reasons – sad, happy, satisfied, perplexed, fatigued, confused, resigned, etc. Stating that a character sighs doesn’t really say anything without some additional information to show the emotion. And once the additional info is there and the emotion is shown, the sigh becomes unnecessary.

ORIGINAL: I flashed him what I hoped was a beguiling smile.

REVISE: None. This is a very specific action that the character does consciously for a reason. It is her conscious action of flashing a particular type of smile that is the important point of the sentence. There are always exceptions, like this one, where a smile, sigh, or a blush is the important action rather than only serving as an external sign of an internal emotion.

There is nothing wrong with having a character frown or smile or sigh on occasion. The questions to ask yourself each time are: What is the best way to engage the reader in this moment of the story? Am I relying too heavily on external signs of emotion?

Many thanks to Samantha for allowing me to use these examples.

8 Responses to “Internal vs. external emotion”

  • Syleste Hoskins Says:

    Thanks for the tips. This will really help me in my revisions and even my new first draft. I really needed help transitioning from first person to third person.

  • Pete Says:

    Good stuff, Robb. Syleste is being well-served.

    More often than not, less ends up being more.

  • Rasheeda Says:

    Good advice and good examples.

  • Phillipa Says:

    The thing about ‘furrowed brow’ is that it’s what the great Kim Wilkins calls a third level cliche. This is a phrase that is not an obvious cliche but is one that is used/overused and has come to signify nothing. I use the rule that if I think the phrase is familiar or overused and yet it’s popped into my head, then I must examine what it is I am tring to get at – go into that moment more deeply – and try and convey that moment using different words. I think these third level cliches are sent from the writing gods to force us to pay attention to what we are doing.

  • Ivan Stoikov - Allan Bard Says:

    Good tips, indeed! The good description of an emotion is what makes books usually better than movies? One cannot feel an emotion that way in a movie just seing that a character is crying as when he/she reads about that in a book… I guess every author must strive to use new expressions in his/her books to make that even better? Remember that Omir was the first who used quite new way of writing his masterpieces in ancient Greece, a way that made him really famous all over the world (instead of saying the sun rose up and the horison became pink, he used something like: The Dawn woke up to lit all the mortals and lving’s way…
    BTW I’d like to make an proposal: using sites like zazzle.com, cafepress. com, fiverr? They could be a good way to promote your works and to help “remove” stupidity in the streets like headlines on t-shirts, fridge-magnets, cups, etc: My Boyfriend kisses Better Than Yours, FBI – female body inspector, etc. Not everything we see and think of should be about sex, right? It would be much better if there were more nice pictures of mythical creatures, good thoughts, poems from fantasy genre, etc? I’m allanbard there, I use some of my illustrations, thoughts, poems from my books (like: One can fight money only with money, Even in the hottest fire there’s a bit of water, etc). Best wishes! Let the wonderful noise of the sea always sounds in your ears! (a greeting of the water dragons’hunters – my Tale Of The Rock Pieces).

  • Shalini Boland Says:

    Oh dear. I’ve got quite a few sighs and frowns. I’ve even got a couple of creased brows. (No furrows though). *Grabs red pen and shuffles off to edit*

  • Tammy Parks Says:

    Just did a check of the ms for the use of ‘sigh,’ and must admit, I am appalled. I already know I have several furrowed brows, and many, many smiles. Now, how to best replace them. The sighs and smiles, not so hard; the furrowed brow however, a little tougher. I know what it looks like and what it conveys in the scene, but haven’t a clue as to how to replace it.
    Also, just noticed, even though the story is a sad one, with much despair, I never used the word frown, not once. Maybe I should go back and throw some in for good measure!