Oct 252010

LR & S Umbagog


Herewith an essay on the techniques for indicating thought and emotion in prose while avoiding the pitfall of sentimentality. Laura-Rose Russell is a former student and a recent Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate and a spectacular nonfiction writer. Please read her piece “Scented” in the Gettysburg  Review and you’ll see what I mean. This craft essay is Laura-Rose’s graduate lecture at VCFA, a terrific example of the genre, at once fiercely intelligent and passionately engaged and packed with craft information, a lesson on reading, and a narrative of her development as a writer. She does something in this lecture I’ve never seen anyone try before. She actually takes an example text and strips out the representation of emotion, motive, etc. to further clarify the profound effect these techniques have on a piece of writing.


There’s a Reason They Call it Show AND Tell: How to Reveal Thoughts, Emotions, and Motivations Without Sentimentality

By Laura-Rose Russell


Sentimentality is an excessive expression of emotion, one that goes beyond what is warranted. The problem with sentimentality is that it actually diminishes the impact of events it is meant to enhance. Sentimentality also reduces the credibility of the writer or character that expresses such emotion. Debra Sparks says, “Sentimentality and coldness are falsehoods, two extremes of dishonesty. Sentimentality gives a moment more than it has earned, coldness less.” Sparks, in an article called “Handling Emotion in Fiction Writing,” points out that the word “sentimental” didn’t have a negative connotation until the 19th century, when it came to mean, not only excessive emotion, but emotion period. To be sentimental meant “to be governed by sentiment in opposition to reason.”

But when we say that writers should avoid sentimentality, we don’t mean they should avoid emotion altogether. Tolstoy says, “Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them” (qtd. in Sparks). What, then, is excessive emotion? Is there a chart somewhere that we can refer to? How much emotion am I permitted when I lose my car keys? How much when I lose a loved one?

We are all familiar with the advice to show rather than tell, and nowhere is this emphasized more than regarding emotions. “Good writers,” John Gardner says, “may ‘tell’ about almost anything in fiction except the character’s feelings” (Burroway, 80). Janet Burroway discusses how Stanislavski, the founder of “Method” acting, “urged his students to abandon the clichéd emotive postures of the nineteenth century stage in favor of emotions evoked by the actor’s recollection of sensory details connected with a personal past trauma . . . Similarly, in written fiction, if the writer depicts the precise physical sensations experienced by the character, a particular emotion may be triggered by the reader’s own sense memory” (80). “Get control of emotion by avoiding the mention of emotion,” says John L’Heureux (Burroway, 81). The message seems pretty clear: don’t name emotions.

But during a recent workshop I attended, Douglas Glover, one of the workshop leaders, broached the subject of explicit versus implicit information. We were debating whether a character in a student’s story was essentially self-serving and taking advantage of another character or whether the character was fundamentally well intentioned but seriously misguided. Glover interrupted our debate to ask us where in the text were we getting the information to support one argument or another? We would cite this line, or that phrase, and Glover would point out that these words and phrases were actually quite ambiguous; we were coming up with a wide range of interpretation regarding points that were pivotal to the story. “Isn’t this what writing is about?” we asked, “suggesting things and letting your reader ‘read between the lines’?” Glover said as writers we do not have the leisure to be quite so ambiguous. Is it any wonder why we were confused? We were trying so hard to follow the rule we had been taught: show, don’t tell; show, don’t tell; show, don’t tell.

To study the technique for revealing thoughts and emotions, I took three essays by good writers, highlight every word or phrase that revealed what a character was thinking or feeling or what motivated their actions. I selected three essays, one each written by Barry Lopez, Loren Eiseley, and David James Duncan. I highlighted the daylights out of those three essays. Two of the three essays hardly had a word that didn’t reveal thought, emotion, or motivation (Lopez was somewhat more reserved than the other two.) That stuff was all over the place. By God, I was on to something.

So what exactly were these three writers doing? To be sure, there was lots of showing. They showed the world that their characters saw, using action and dialogue and significant detail, and all those good things we’ve been taught to use. But they didn’t just show the world, they commented on it, judged it, and told us what their characters thought of it. The characters told us what they were thinking about, what they wanted, and why they did the things they did. There was very little mystery involved in most of these lines. The words and phrases I highlighted varied primarily in their degree of explicitness. I recognized three general categories, which I named “Direct,” “Indirect,” and “Abstract.”

“Direct” disclosures are the most explicit, coming right out and stating what the character thought or felt, or why he did what he did. Direct disclosure includes what Douglas Glover calls “novel thought” in which characters are constantly casting forward and back in time; Characters remember and analyze the past, they assess the present, and they make plans for and speculate about the future. Direct disclosures are often signaled by key phrases, such as I was, he thought, she didn’t think, I knew, he didn’t know, he felt, she didn’t feel, he wanted, she wished, I did it because.

Here are some examples of direct disclosure of thoughts from the essays I studied:I believe this is my Maker’s intention; Nettie didn’t approve of the whiskey; He wasn’t a bad man; I won’t forget; I hope he remembers. Here are some examples of direct disclosure of emotion: I was glad. I felt awestruck. I wept with joy. I felt fear. I grew suspicious. I was amazed, then elated. I was a happy man. I was brooding over that sense of emptiness. I felt the loss. I was very fond of them. Their deaths left me burdened and confused. We stood in silent frustration. Here are some examples of direct disclosure of motivation: I wanted my life to feel like an ancient myth or tale. We went because it was so different from what we knew. I wanted to speak to them. I said it to break the tension.

“Indirect” disclosures are subtler, and you might miss them if you aren’t paying attention, but they will influence you nonetheless. Most of the “Indirect” disclosures I found consisted of single adjectives or adverbs, modifiers that did not merely describe people, places, and things, but characterized them, guiding our judgment and our perception. When characters or narrators speak of a “ruthless” individual, the “Goddamned” accidents, the man’s “genial” face, “bitter” winters, “impish” humor, “magnificent” birds, “embarrassing” praise, or a “hopeless” wound, they are not simply reporting their observations, they are revealing their opinion, revealing the workings of their own minds and guiding the formation of our opinions. Yet with indirect disclosure there is still some room for interpretation. Does the character admire ruthlessness in an individual, or fear it? Is the character secretly pleased at embarrassing praise? Or is she genuinely uncomfortable with the attention?

I labeled the third type of disclosure “Abstract.” This is when the author uses similes, metaphors, or the transference of emotions onto objects in order to reveal what is going on a character’s mind. Though the phrases clearly reveal a character’s inner workings, there is ample room for interpretation. Here are some examples I found: I prowled about like an animal. We lay like windrows of leaves. I felt as though the piers had suddenly gone out from under the veranda of an ancestral southern home. He listened to our stories and helped us shape our narrative. It was as though something had been stolen. The evidence we had been debating in workshop most closely resembled this last type of disclosure. We tended to agree that information was being revealed, however we did not agree on precisely what the words meant; actually we didn’t remotely agree on what the words meant–we read the same phrases and came up with exactly opposite interpretations.

On a whim, I re-typed what I felt were representative sections of each essay and recorded the word count for each. Then I deleted every single word or phrase that I felt revealed the character’s inner workings and got a new word count, waved my calculator at all these words and came up with a little trivia. How much copy space did these authors use breaking the mantra never to tell? Barry Lopez, who was the most circumspect of the three, tending towards the objective tone of a journalist dedicated 28% of his words towards revealing thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Loren Eiseley came in at 41% and David James Duncan, a whopping 54%.

What was even more telling was the way I felt when I read the Duncan selection, stripped of “telling” so that all it could do was “show.”

In late winter, when I was ten, I spotted the largest nest I’d ever seen in the top of a towering, cottonwood tree. I began shinnying up the limbless lower trunk. A few minutes and ninety or so feet later, I was clinging to the tiny branches just under the massive nest, and two great horned owls were circling the treetop within twenty feet of me.

I reached into the nest with a bare hand. Though their orbit of the tree became tighter and they began to let out quiet cries, the owls did not attack; my groping hand found not owlets but two large, warm eggs. I stuck one egg in my coat pocket, and shinnied back down the tree.

The boys below greeted me. “You crazy asshole!” one of them kept saying.

Leaving my friends, I trudged home through the woods, keeping a warm hand around the egg the entire way, then fetched a shoe box, a soft towel, and a lamp with a flexible neck, wrapped the egg in the towel, bent the lamp over it; I had created a nest. The egg began to hatch. The next morning my mother let me stay home from school to watch. From that first crack to full emergence took twenty hours. The owlet was four inches long, naked, and exhausted at birth, its pink flesh blurred by an aura of slush colored fuzz. Its eyes were enormous, but covered with bluish skin.

The owlet rested briefly after breaking free, then commenced a ceaseless, open-beaked, wobbly begging. I phoned the zoo, reached its birdkeeper, received a scolding for my nest robbing, but still proferred the tweezered egg, raw hamburger, and eye-droppered milk the keeper recommended. The owlet responded [and then] it proceed[ed] to die. It took a full day to stop eating, two days to stop begging, another half day to stop writhing and die.

How does this story make you feel? What do you think of this boy? What do you think of what he has just done? The story makes me angry. I think this kid sounds like an insensitive jerk. When I go back through and think about what bothers me, I find myself saying, “What is he thinking? Why is he doing that? Doesn’t he know better?” These questions are very similar to ones I hear in workshop. “Why is the character doing that?” “I don’t understand . . .” “I want to know more about . . .” I also found myself passing judgment on the kid; I don’t like him, and I don’t respect him. Now, perhaps this is Duncan’s intention–maybe this is exactly what he wants me to think. Maybe all of the “telling” I cut out is superfluous, and I have understood his intentions perfectly well without all of the disclosure. Let’s see what happens when I read the original version of the story.[1]

In late winter, when I was ten, I made perhaps my first conscious connection between the mysteries of the inner life and those of the outer world. It happened on a long hike through a doomed suburban forest, when I spotted the largest nest I’d ever seen in the top of a towering, unclimbable-looking cottonwood tree. Partly to dumbfound the older boys I was with, partly out of incomprehensible yearning, I began shinnying up the limbless lower trunk. A few harrowing minutes and ninety or so feet later, I was clinging to the tiny branches just under the massive nest, and two magnificent great horned owls were circling the treetop within twenty feet of me. Circling, and staring—till somewhere inside I felt it: the sense of a sphere. Vigilant, unreadable eyes, watching. Me at the center. . .

The nest was so wide and the trunk beneath so narrow there was no way to climb, or even see, up into the nest. I therefore reached—blindly, courageously, and incredibly foolishly—into the nest with a bare hand. I learned later that had it contained owlets I would have been attacked, and possibly killed, when the adults knocked me out of my precarious perch. But though their orbit of the tree became tighter and they began to let out quiet cries, the owl did not attack; as luck would have it, my groping hand found not owlets but two large, warm eggs. Again out of mixed motives—bravado, yearning, a pagan fantasy to possess my own magnificent bird—I stuck one egg in my coat pocket, and shinnied back down the tree.

The boys below greeted me with everything a conquering hero could hope for: praise for my climbing, awe of my defiance of the adult owls, envy of my booty. “You crazy asshole!” one of them kept saying, in a way that made clear his desire to be thought the same. But seeing the mother owl return to the nest, knowing the egg beneath her was now destined to be raised alone, the word “crazy” struck me as too kind. I was just a garden-variety asshole. I’d done something stupid, knew it, and knew I lacked the strength and courage to climb the tree again and undo it.

I tried to correct my mistake in a more arcane way: leaving my friends and their embarrassing praise, I trudged home through the woods, keeping a warm hand around the egg the entire way, then fetched a shoe box, a soft towel, and a lamp with a flexible neck, wrapped the egg in the towel, bent the lamp over it, and began trying to convince myself that I had created a viable nest. To my amazement, the egg was convinced: that night it began to hatch. And the next morning my mother, knowing real education when she saw it, let me stay home from school to watch. It was a surprisingly arduous process. From that first crack to full emergence took twenty hours: eggs, judging by this one, are no easier to escape than wombs. The owlet was four inches long, naked, and exhausted at birth, its pink flesh blurred by an outlandish aura of slush colored fuzz. Its eyes were enormous, but covered with bluish skin: no staring, no sense of the mysterious sphere this time. In fact I’d never seen a pair of eyes look less likely to open and see—for I was their adoptive mother.

The owlet rested briefly after breaking free, then commenced a ceaseless, open-beaked, wobbly begging. Panicked by the conviction in its body language, I phoned the zoo, reached its birdkeeper, received a scolding for my nest robbing and a prediction of doom, but still proferred the tweezered egg, raw hamburger, and eye-droppered milk the keeper recommended. Again, to my amazement, the owlet responded. It enjoyed my cooking, it suffered my touch, it responded to my mothering precisely long enough to make me love it. Only then did it proceed to die. And even at birth, horned owls are tough. It took a full day to stop eating, two days to stop begging, another half day to stop writhing and die.

Is your reaction to the second version the same as your reaction to the first version? Mine certainly isn’t. I understand now why the protagonist does what he does. I sympathize with him. I feel badly for him. What’s more, I am moved, I am affected by the events of the story. If Duncan had left me to interpret everything for myself, reading his essay would have been a completely different experience. To me, this is a strong argument in favor of “telling” in addition to “showing”.

Let’s return to Burroway’s advice: to show how the emotion feels, rather than simply label the emotion. “If the writer depicts the precise physical sensations experienced by the character, a particular emotion may be triggered by the reader’s own sense memory” (80). I think Burroway misses a very important point, which is articulated well by Spark: “Emotion, by itself, is not moving.” Spark agrees with Burroway and Tolstoy that writers should use “external signs” to convey emotion. “But this doesn’t simply mean that our characters should be constantly grimacing and smirking so we know what they’re feeling.” This kind of writing, she says, “Can land you the kind of prose that many of my students write. Lots of tingly flesh, butterflies in the stomach, and tears coursing down cheeks, and still no emotion being conveyed. This is because in the end, you don’t want to present emotion in fiction, you want to present what gives rise to emotion.”

Spark also says, “Once you present what gives rise to an emotion, you don’t need to depict emotion—you don’t need to tell your reader how to feel, for your reader will already know how to feel.” I disagree with this second statement. In the selection I read by Duncan, the events of the story are very important—we need to know what causes the feelings the narrator experiences, but the events alone are insufficient. People are affected by events in different ways; had this narrator been a cruel bully (as it appeared in the stripped-down version), the encounter with the baby owl would not have broken his heart. As readers, we needed to witness not only the actions and experiences that give rise to the emotions, but also the character’s motivations, his desires, and his emotional response to the events that transpire. We need to know that he is affected. The death of the baby bird is tragic, but it is even more tragic when we know that the boy craved connection with the bird, redemption for the mistake he had made, and that he had tried and failed to save its life. We need to know that in the brief moment of his success he felt love for the bird. The thoughts and emotions are part of the experience; incidental emotions build on each other to give rise to more intense emotions; the act of wanting and desiring things is what renders the actions and events meaningful.

Emotions are not the only things that have been lost in the admonition to “show, don’t tell.” Many of us are reluctant to guide our reader’s opinions of characters or circumstances, as was evident during our workshop debate. Interestingly, when it comes to editorializing, Burroway says to go ahead.

Human beings are constantly judging . . . The fact is that when we are not passing such judgments, its because we aren’t much interested, we’re indifferent. Although you may not want to sanctify or damn your characters, you do want us to care about them, and if you refuse to direct our judgment, you may be inviting our indifference. Usually, when you say you ‘don’t want us to judge,’ you mean that you want our feelings to be mixed, paradoxical, complex. She’s horribly irritating, but it’s not her fault. He’s sexy, but there’s something cold about it underneath. If this is what you mean, then you must direct our judgment in both or several directions, not in no direction (79).

I like Burroway’s point that part of our reluctance to label comes from not wanting to pigeon-hole our characters or their actions. However, when we don’t name things, we risk ambiguity. Spark says that “Avoiding sentimentality isn’t so much a matter of restraining emotion as being precise about emotion . . .recognizing and telling a complex truth. This involves, of course, an ability to articulate contradictions.”

So does this mean that that we can throw away the rules and venture forth without fear? Unfortunately no. In examining the essays by Duncan, Eiseley, and Lopez, what I found was that nothing was as simple as it seemed. Just because Duncan, Eiseley, and Lopez are showing and telling, doesn’t mean that showing and telling is the answer to avoiding sentimentality. True, they revealed thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and true, they avoided melodrama and sentimentality in essays that (by the way) covered such potentially sentimental topics as Eiseley’s near death experience, Lopez’s loss of not one, but five beloved elders in the span of one year, and Duncan’s repeated involvement in the deaths of animals he wanted to save. But as they say in science, correlation is not causation.

I wholeheartedly agree with the advice to study good writers in order to learn technique, but what I find even more useful is to study good and not-so-good writers side by side. Often times the contrast between effective and ineffective writing helps me identify and articulate techniques I would not otherwise have noticed. For this project I turned to an anthology that I keep on my bookshelf because it has two wonderful qualities: the essays are similar in topic and style to my own writing, and the writing is not very good. (When I say “not very good,” I mean that the writing is flawed and amateurish in virtually the same ways that my own writing is flawed and amateurish. I can pick apart the essays in this anthology with an objectivity that is difficult to achieve when looking at my own writing, but still learn lessons of direct relevance to my own work.) I selected an essay called “Solo,” written by Lucy Jane Bledsoe, and I tackled the essay in the same way that I had the previous three, highlighting and underlining my way through it.

Bledsoe, it turns out, generally uses the same strategy as Duncan, Lopez, and Eiseley in that she reveals the thoughts emotions and motivations of her characters using direct, indirect, and abstract means. Yet her essay seems sentimental and overwrought to me, where the other pieces do not. Why does Bledsoe fail to move or convince me the way the other writers do? Bledsoe’s style and voice is so different from the male authors I have been looking at, that I decided to add one more example of successful writing to the study—Pam Houston. I picked an essay by Houston called “Powerhouse by the Book.” This gave me two essays, both written by women in the last fifteen years, both depicting chosen adventures [2] in the wilderness, both dealing with themes of risk and reward. By looking at these two essays side-by-side I was able to notice some subtle, but important differences, most of which relate back to Spark’s directive to focus on what gives rise to emotion rather than on the emotion itself.

Observation #1: Placement matters. Bledsoe opens with emotion, diving into some pretty deep stuff in her opening paragraph. She talks about the impact of being out in the wilderness, how her “feelings go so deep they become one simple force, where sorrow and joy become the same thing” (3). The effect is sentimental, overwrought, and confusing. Yet the words she uses, the sentiment she expresses are not significantly different from Houston when she says that the reason she loves rafting this particular section of river is that “It lets me walk that fragile, shimmery line between all that’s brave and all that’s crazy, the same line I was walking when I made the west my home” (90). Nor is it fundamentally less emotive than Duncan’s words “One of the terrors of being human, and one of the joys, is that for all our limitations and confusions we have been given power. The life that terrifies me and the life I adore are one” (47). The primary difference is that Duncan and Houston have written these words at the end of their essays, after they have shown the events that “give rise” to such emotions. They have caused us to share their emotions, or at the very least to understand how they have come to feel this way. Bledsoe is building up the melodrama before establishing that such emotion is warranted. Spark writes, “A story or movie that opens with someone crying is not moving. How could it be? We don’t know what the tears are about. We don’t know anything about the person who is crying. All we have is the emotion, and that, by itself, is not moving.”

Observation #2: Avoid blatant under- or overstatements of emotion. As Sparks said, “Sentimentality and coldness are falsehoods, two extremes of dishonesty. Sentimentality gives a moment more than it has earned, coldness less.” The concept of “earning” emotion is important here. One pitfall that is particularly important to CNF writers is the distinction between what is accurate and what is believable. How many of us have been told that something we wrote was not believable, and our response (even if we weren’t allowed to talk) was “But that’s how it really happened.” We seem to think that accuracy is inherently believable, but it isn’t necessarily. Sparks says she once had a student who wrote a story about a lovely, perfect young person who is tragically killed in a car accident and everyone in the story grieves terribly. Sparks’ other students argued that the story was not believable and the writer revealed that it was a true story she had written about her own brother. This made for an awkward workshop moment, but insisting that the story was true did not make it any more believable; she had loved and adored her brother, but she had failed to convince the readers to feel the same way. Her story was accurate, but not believable.

Similarly, when I say that Bledsoe tends to overstate the emotions in her story, I’m not arguing that she has lied or exaggerated her feelings. I’m arguing that she has failed to inspire a similar level of emotion in me, the reader. For example, Bledsoe claims that her friend would ski a slope, and then fall down, “exhausted from her ecstasy” (4). But she spent a scant three lines describing that skiing experience, and in those brief words she has not convinced me to feel ecstasy, nor has she really convinced me that the ski run was exhausting. I believe it was fun, I might even have gotten “exhilarating” out of the description, but I did not achieve ecstasy while reading the passage.

Houston, on the other hand, spends three pages describing the series of rapids that she runs on the first day of the rafting trip, and when she tells me “It’s late in the day and we’re all exhausted” (89) I absolutely believe her. I’m practically exhausted from reading the passage, because she managed to convey such tension and excitement. In fact, I think she is understating the case somewhat, which makes her come off as a pretty cool customer. When she tells me that later that night she will get to sit in a hot spring by herself and look at the stars, she does not have to name the ecstasy she will feel, I can anticipate it. I am coming to the conclusion that you can express as much emotion as you are able to get your reader to feel; when in doubt, aim just a little low of the mark. Expressing an intense emotion will not raise the significance of the preceding events, and in fact, it may have the opposite effect.

Observation #3. Not every moment in your story has the same emotional significance; and if you try to imply that it does, everything will seem less significant. Bledsoe keeps the intensity dial on high all the way through the piece, but it doesn’t work. Houston, by contrast, intersperses the nail-biting sequences with reflective sequences, the deep introspection with some factual background material. Duncan’s essay, which I consider one of the most emotionally intense pieces of writing I know, works in waves. He builds up the tension and emotional intensity, delivers a staggering blow, and then backs off for a while. Duncan almost always follows his most powerful moments with white space; he gives you time to rest. When he starts again, he comes back to the story or conversation gently, frequently opening with some background material, or an intellectual diversion. The language is less intense, the pace is slower, and he engages your brain, not your heart. He moves you away from the emotional intensity of the previous moment, giving little hint that he is laying the groundwork for the next wave. After the passage I read to you about the baby owl, Duncan mentions that talking about the supernatural, the sphere of floating eyes, calls into question his reliability as a narrator. He laughs at how foolish he sounds, he admits that he knows you are tempted not to believe him, and yet despite your disbelief, he is compelled to tell you about the next thing that happened to him, and gradually, he begins engaging your heart again.

Bledsoe, on the other hand, attempts to make every moment seem life or death, every thought seem life changing, and her writing has a numbing effect. Spark’s article includes a quote by George Williams who says that sentimentality “puts a preposterous value on everything.” I feel, reading Bledsoe’s piece, that she is trying to make the events of her story more important, by simply telling me how intensely they made her feel, and it gives me the impression that she is not reliable, she has no perspective, and that I cannot trust that anything in her story was as intense as she says it was.

Observation #4. Emotions should be specific, even if conflicted. Bledsoe sometimes resorts to the tingling fingers and pumping blood that it is a substitute for emotion. She sometimes resorts to similes and metaphors that leave too much room for interpretation “My emotional state was as changeable as this mountain weather” (5), (which she had not described as being particularly changeable). She wonders if her friend “learned the meaning of fear” (5) before she died, and I can’t help asking, “do you mean you wonder if she was scared? Or do you mean there is a special meaning to fear, the nature of which is elusive and mysterious?” I am not sure what she means. When Duncan and Houston refer to emotions at the end of their stories, the feelings they mention are conflicted and complex, but they are concise. When Duncan and Houston name their feelings I understand what they are talking about.

My advice to you in the end is this: show, show, show, but don’t be afraid to tell. Remember that telling, by itself, is rarely sufficient, and that showing, by itself, leaves too much to the imagination. Your characters have thoughts and feelings and motivations, just like real people, and just like real people sometimes they say them out loud, even if they are confused or conflicted. Remember to emphasize what gives rise to emotion over the expression of the emotion itself, but don’t be afraid to express the emotion too. Don’t be afraid to judge your characters, or to interpret events, or to influence your reader’s opinion. Don’t avoid naming things simply because they are complex and difficult to articulate; we are writers, it is our job to articulate complex things. Thoughts, emotions, and desires are part of experience, don’t handicap yourself by banning them from the page. What I come to in the end is that the real trick, what really matters, is to focus you attention on getting your reader to feel the emotion; if you do that, you can say just about anything you want.

—By Laura-Rose Russell

Sources Cited

Bledsoe, Lucy Jane. “Solo.” Another Wilderness: Notes From the New Outdoorswoman.

Ed. Susan Fox Rogers. Seattle: Seal Press, 1997.

Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 6th ed. New York:

Longman, 2003.

Duncan, David James. “Birdwatching as a Blood Sport.” My Story as Told by Water. San

Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2001.

Eiseley, Loren. “The Trap.” All the Strange Hours. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,


Houston, Pam. “Powerhouse by the Book.” A Little More About Me. New York:

Washington Square Press, 1999.

Lopez, Barry. “Borders.” Crossing Open Ground. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Sparks, Debra. “Cry, Cry, Cry: Handling Emotion in Fiction Writing.” The Writer’s

Chronicle, December 2000. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. You’ll need to know that earlier in the essay, Duncan has told us that when he was falling asleep in childhood, he often imagined that he was at the center of a sphere of watching, unblinking eyes. The eyes didn’t frighten him; they merely intrigued him.
  2. This is what Douglas Glover and I, in correspondence, have been calling the kind of adversity that I tend to write about—optional challenges that are willingly undertaken, as opposed to accident, illness, or misfortune, which are forms of adversity inflicted upon a character. Because the character always has the option to give up, there are some motivational issues unique to chosen adventures.

  7 Responses to “There’s a Reason They Call it Show AND Tell: How to Reveal Thoughts, Emotions, and Motivations Without Sentimentality — Laura-Rose Russell”

  1. What an excellent essay. I was particularly interested in what was almost an aside: the special challenges of writing a “chosen adventure” story. I am now writing a “chosen adventure” story, and my last book had elements of the same. Finding the right balance between desire and common sense is particularly difficult. It begs the question of freedom versus condemnation for a character’s perhaps reckless choices. The revelation of motivation is essential. Thank you, Laura-Rose, for sharing your lecture with us.

  2. Great essay, and yes: Show, show, show, then tell. Another rule/maxim I like to use is: Observed action (or other trigger), followed by emotion, then thought, and finally action. But CNF particularly calls for more telling. (I think.) The CNF narrator or memoirist really has to be conscious of her motivations, contradictory impulses, fears, desires–all the more reason to give that extra space to telling. Thanks, Laura-Rose.

  3. Thanks, Laura-Rose. Your treatment of the Duncan text, with and without the “telling”, was illuminating.

  4. Excellent essay. I think what Burroway misses, and you caught in your fascinating variations of the Duncan essay, is that the writer can convey not just the events but the meaning of the events, their significance to the writer (or the character). That’s where telling is crucial. Once I understand the deeper levels of what’s happening in the story, I can indeed feel what the writer wants me to feel. Ultimately, a strict adherence to show-don’t-tell strips prose of its major advantage in the competition with other story-telling techniques. A book that was all ‘show’ might just as well be a movie. And a lot of books published today fall into precisely that trap.

  5. I agree. Excellent essay. I’m in a writing group with Pam Houston, and she has in fact told me what you picked up on: that at the end of a piece you can “get away with” some telling that would not work at the beginning. Thanks for sharing all your hard work.

  6. Thanks Laura. This is the second time I’ve read your essay and, I must say, it’s helpful Tell, express emotion, reflect/interpret; that’s what I take away from your piece. Thanks again! Melissa

  7. Excellent piece. I look forward to applying your emotion test to my favorite essays and, more importantly, to my own.

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