Words: 0

Bad author, no cookie!

One of the dangers  if you will of showing rather than telling, is that you can become mired in the action catalog. This is sentence after sentence that detail, often excruciatingly, what the protagonist is doing second by second.

Miranda hit the snooze button and went back to sleep. Ten minutes later the alarm clock went off again. She fumbled at it to turn it off, silencing the buzzer mid-voice. She lay back in the darkness. Then she groaned, pushed back the warm cocoon-like comforter, swung her feet to the cold floor, and stood. She got her robe and went to the bathroom.

Sure, this is showing. Boy, we get to see every inch of her progress from the bed to the bathroom. I can keep this up forever, talking about how she pees, takes a shower and shaves her legs, goes into the kitchen and makes herself toast, and stop stop stop stop it doesn’t matter!
How do we make this matter? How do I get you to care about Miranda? Setting aside the fact that you should probably never start a novel with the character waking up (let’s pretend this is in Chapter 7, okay?), how do we rework this simple paragraph so that it imparts plot and character and setting?

We do it by adding emotional context.

Miranda hit the snooze button, silencing the buzzer mid-voice. She stared at the ceiling in her dim bedroom, gray winter light trickling in through the blinds. She didn’t want to get out of bed. If she got out of bed, everything that happened last night became real. Everything she did last night became real. The buzzer screeched again, making her heart jump. She fumbled to turn off the alarm clock and summoning up her courage, she pushed back the comforter and swung her feet to the cold floor. Miranda winced, but the sensation was nothing to the stinging scratches on her face and back, the deep cuts on her hands. She stank of blood and sweat and fear.

Context — in this case her emotional and physical state — gives us two extra layers in a scene and (I hope) makes it more interesting. Now, sometimes an affectless recounting of action can be extremely powerful. It depends. But almost always you want action to take place with emotional underpinnings (and vice versa — no wallowing in emotion without providing action to give it more oomph).

I don’t know what Miranda did last night (damn shapeshifters are at it again, or something),  but I don’t care about the first Miranda nearly as much as I do about the second one.


Donna Brown · September 2, 2012 at 1:18 pm

The other day I read an bit of another writer’s novel that she had written and it described something as mundane as brushing her teeth (The character wasn’t brushing her teeth, but whatever she was doing, I can’t remember exactly which proved how memorable her actions really were). My big question regarding that description was “why should I care”? If the whole book is like that, there’s no way that I’m going to buy it, it would bore me to tears. My rule of thumb is that everything that I include in my story needs add something to the story line. Details are meant to enhance not detract from the story. Details provide insights into feelings and emotions. They help us feel as if we are actually in the scene.

Patrice Sarath · September 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm

It’s like Elmore Leonard says, leave out the bits the writer doesn’t want to read.

Patrice Sarath on balancing action & emotion in writing | Hannah Warren · September 2, 2012 at 8:43 am

[…] Patrice Sarath is a seasoned author and editor from Austin, Texas, who writes books in different genres. Check out her impressive record of service on her website Patrice Sarath. Yes, published by no less than Penguin Berkley in the US,  she loves to give writing advice to struggling scribes. I’m thrilled she let me repost her blog on the right balance between action and emotion in writing. IMHO this workshop-in-a-nutshell is of priceless value and can be adopted right away in every new paragraph you write. The original post can be read at  http://www.patricesarath.com/gordath-wood/writing-lessons-avoiding-the-action-catalog/ […]

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