The hoary catchphrase “Show, don’t tell” and the reputation of American minimalism skewed the assumptions of generations of writing students by sending them down the rabbit hole of restraint and obliquity. Time and again, I have seen writing students try to write with both hands tied behind their backs. Somehow all sorts of emotional and mental description have become forbidden in the culture of creative writing. “Show, don’t tell” means that simple sentences like “Bob was sad” are ineffably old-fashioned and somehow improper in the modern world of prose (fiction and nonfiction). The only solution is to make people read actual stories and notice the myriad ways real writers do indicate, well, emotion. Herewith, an essay by a former student of mine, Walker Griffy, who read and saw and now describes — a healthy corrective — some simple techniques for telling emotional states of characters.
A clear representation of character emotion does not necessarily mean writing things like “Bob is sad.” Actually, “Bob is sad” can work just fine as a starting point. But we generally expect a text to go further, to let the reader know not only that Bob is sad, but how sad Bob is, why Bob is sad, and how that affects Bob and his place in that particular story. The examples I’ll be using in this essay will provide a better understanding of what techniques can be used to accomplish all of these tasks simultaneously.
Before looking at those examples, I want to clarify exactly what it is I’m talking about when I say “character emotion.” I’ll start with the most concrete definition of emotion from Merriam-Webster: “the affective state of consciousness.” When that is applied to the writing of character emotion in fiction, it is literally placing the reader within the character’s consciousness and explaining how a character’s emotional state affects his behavior. This allows a character to act in a rational or irrational way without confusing the reader; the motivation is not coming from a place of logic and reason, but rather a well-understood emotional state.
Now that I’ve provided an idea of exactly what is being discussed when using the phrase “character emotion,” I want to break down some techniques for representing emotions in a story.
Techniques and Definitions
First, there is the technique of direct reporting. With the direct reporting technique, a narrator can describe the way a character is feeling, or a character can identify his or her own emotions. This is the most clear and effective way character emotion can be presented to a reader. Aside from a first-person narrator, a character only identifies his or her own emotions in dialogue. Of course, when used in dialogue, it is only as trustworthy as that character may be, but when employed by a narrator, the reader is left with a concrete understanding of what the described character is feeling. I will primarily look at examples of the narrator employing the direct reporting technique, but it can also be used by characters within the story. The example I used earlier of “Bob is sad” is a simple, but perfect, example of direct reporting. The reader knows what the character is feeling and applies that to any actions that follow.
In her story “Nettles,” Alice Munro employs a first-person narrator to explore the feelings and thoughts of a woman struggling with her definition of love. The story begins with a flashback to the narrator’s childhood and her first encounter with love as a young girl, which unwittingly set the standard for love that would last her whole life. The story then moves ahead to the narrator’s divorce and her finding her first love again after many years. The narrator uses the direct reporting technique to describe both her emotions as an innocent child experiencing love for the first time as well as an adult searching for a fulfilling relationship following a failed marriage.
Recalling the first love she felt for a traveling well-digger’s son, the narrator describes the relationship in adult terms, but makes clear how the emotions felt as a little girl: “We were like sturdy and accustomed sweethearts, whose bond needs not much outward expression. And for me at least that was solemn and thrilling.” Although she is looking back on her time with this boy, the narrator is directly telling the reader how she felt thrilled by the relationship, which then, in the following narrative, serves as a contrast to what she experiences with her husband as an adult. It is a powerful emotion because it is one she longs for long after she has grown up. The technique of direct reporting tells the reader exactly what the narrator’s motivation is.
The story goes on to describe her adult life after she’s left her first husband, and the narrator uses direct reporting to describe the emotions she feels for a lover in this passage:
We exchanged news—I made sure I had news—and we laughed, and went for walks in the ravine, but all I really wanted was to entice him to have sex with me, because I thought the high enthusiasm of sex fused people’s best selves. I was stupid about these matters, in a way that was very risky, particularly for a woman of my age. There were times when I would be so happy, after our encounters—dazzled and secure—and there were other times when I would lie stone-heavy with misgiving.
First, she describes scenes that took place with her lover and the conflicting experience of casual discussion while wanting sexual gratification. By the time the narrator gives a direct report of the emotions “happy” and “stone-heavy with misgiving,” the reader is already caught up in a well-defined, conflicted situation, so the clear statement of the narrator’s feelings helps to anchor the reader in that emotional state.
The second technique I’d like to discuss is the indirect reporting of character emotion. Indirect reporting is the technique of having the narrator or a character guess, judge, or intuit the emotion of another character based on an interpretation of actions or statements. The difference between direct and indirect reporting is that the emotion being expressed is interpreted; it is not presented as a factual emotional state, but rather a perceived one. With this technique, the narrator, or more commonly, another character comments on a character’s possible emotional state or motivation. This allows the reader to simultaneously see that emotion from an outside perspective and gain further insight into how the commenting character is seeing and processing those around him or her.
A good example of this technique is found in Andre Dubus’ story “The Winter Father,” where the protagonist is a divorced man learning to be a part-time father to his children who live with their mother. The story begins with the couple’s divorce and then follows the first few months of their separation, focusing on the father’s relationship with his own children with whom he no longer lives. The first time the man goes to pick up his children after moving out, he sees his ex-wife and makes the following observation: “Her eyes held him: the nest of pain was there, the shyness, the coiled anger; but there was another shimmer: she was taking a new marriage vow: This is the way we shall love our children now, watch how well I can do it.” This excerpt contains both indirect reporting of character emotion and thought. The third-person limited narrator is observing, interpreting, and reporting both emotion and thought that the father deduces from the expression on his wife’s face.
A third technique is character emotion depicted via physical manifestations. A writer represents a character’s emotion, say, sadness, in action, say, crying. When I first began studying this technique, I was looking for physical manifestations of emotion that stood on their own. And while those certainly do exist, I came to the conclusion that the most effective examples are often used in conjunction with direct reporting. This discovery had a particularly strong impact on me because I have found through personal experience as a learning writer that the emotion I believe I am clearly depicting with only physical manifestations is almost never clear to the reader. These exclusively physical manifestations, I’ve found, are almost always lacking in terms of revealing character emotion because they are just too subtle. The benefit of using the physical manifestation technique coupled with direct reporting is that it creates a visual to go along with the emotion being expressed.
I found a good example of this technique in Carson McCullers’ story “Sucker,” which is told from a teenage boy’s first-person perspective. The narrator tells the story of how his relationship with his younger brother Sucker blossoms and is then destroyed in tune with the narrator’s blossoming and then failing first romance. The story ends with the narrator lamenting the loss of a relationship with his brother following a frustrated outburst one night. This example uses direct reporting with a great amount of physical manifestation to show the younger brother’s reaction to an angry outburst from the narrator: “He sat in the middle of the bed, his eyes blinking and scared.” Here, the physical manifestation is given with a single-word of direct reporting: scared. However, that single word is enough to establish the young boy’s emotions and place the following passage into context for the reader, allowing the narrator to use exclusively physical language without sacrificing information:
Sucker’s mouth was part way open and he looked as though he’d knocked his funny bone. His face was white and sweat came out on his forehead. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and for a minute his arm stayed raised that way as though he was holding something away from him.
I’ve given these few short examples just to illustrate the techniques in practice. These were all stories I read early in my time as a graduate student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and they stuck with me as some of my favorites. It was only in going back in my reading in preparation for this essay that I began to notice things that I had skimmed over while focusing on other craft aspects the first time around. Now I want to look at two more short stories that utilize all three techniques and set a great example for all writers to follow.
The first of the two stories I’d like to examine is “The Dead” by James Joyce. In this story, Joyce uses a third-person limited narrative in Gabriel Conroy’s point of view. The story follows the protagonist through a night of encounters at an annual celebration. Throughout the story, Gabriel has three different encounters with women that affect his mood and cause him to grow self-conscious before he can assert himself and move past it. As the story moves forward, each encounter grows in its respective influence on Gabriel’s mood. As the story progresses, so does the insight into Gabriel’s emotional state.
“The Dead” focuses on Gabriel’s relationship with women in his life, moving from the rather inconsequential (a maid at the party) to a female journalist, Miss Ivors, a colleague whom he respects, before ending with his wife. During the party, Gabriel’s conventional patriarchal social assumptions are exposed through successive conflicts with the three women. Most of the story action takes place during the party, but the significant action with his wife takes place after the couple returns to a hotel room for the night. Gabriel mistakes his wife’s moodiness for sexual passion then becomes angry when she doesn’t react to him. Suddenly, she begins telling him about a lover, Michael Furey, who died many years before, died of love, and Gabriel is left mourning the fact that he had never loved anyone, even his wife, the way this ex-lover had loved her.
After each plot event (with the maid, with the journalist), the narrative always returns to Gabriel’s internal state, and as such, his emotions are paramount to the tone and meaning of the entire piece. Each encounter makes him gloomy and self-conscious until he engages in various ritual behaviors such as focusing on his speech or making condescending jokes that help to discount the women and make him feel better. Only when he has the plot conflict scene with his wife does Gabriel find that his habitual practices do not work; he is unable to render the encounter insignificant. Finally he has to see himself and his wife as they really are.
I’d like to now look at some examples of the techniques I’ve already discussed asthey are used to represent the emotional aspect of “The Dead.” In the first scene, Gabriel makes a slightly off-color remark to one of the maids working at the party. To show Gabriel’s response to the maid’s retort, Joyce uses direct reporting of emotion:
He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the heading he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.
This passage contains a great amount of information about Gabriel, and most of it is emotional. It begins with the direct reporting of his emotional state following the conflict with the maid: “He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort.” The paragraph continues with another example of direct reporting: “It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel.” This continuation of direct reporting by the narrator gives another emotion to Gabriel’s reaction to the incident. His thoughts, affected by the gloom cast over him, then turn to his upcoming speech, and the narrator continues to employ the direct reporting technique: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers.” Although the language in the passage then changes to express more character thought than emotion, the entire paragraph serves as a perfect example of direct reporting and clearly establishes the internal condition of Gabriel.
Later, Gabriel has a social conflict with Miss Ivors, a woman who is essentially his equal and a friend. The conflict begins when Miss Ivors needles Gabriel for writing a column for a paper not as pro-Irish as she would like, a charge that confuses Gabriel: “When their turn to cross had come he was still perplexed and inattentive.” The scene continues with more chiding from Miss Ivors as Gabriel grows more flustered: “Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy.” The scene also contains outbursts from Gabriel, a brief example of direct reporting in dialogue, such as proclaiming, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” in response to Miss Ivors’ accusing him of being a West Briton (an Irish insult something like an African-American being called an Oreo). However, following this more rattling conflict, we again see the other side of Gabriel.
Once Miss Ivors has left the party, before dinner is served, Gabriel is able to forget all about the encounter: “He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table.” This example contains two different descriptions of Gabriel’s emotional state. The first describes him as “quite at ease” and the word “now” following that description adds the element of a change in emotional state, so it is clear to the reader that he has overcome the previous emotional struggle that was causing him to feel agitated. This is not only a good example of the technique, but it is also very important to the momentum of the narrative; this scene repeats the conflict of the earlier scene with the maid with increased dramatic intensity. More is at stake in this encounter for Gabriel than with the maid.
Near the end of this story, Gabriel’s emotions swing again when, instead of making love to his wife as he desires to do, he listens to her talk about a former lover. Joyce uses the direct reporting technique to show how, in an instant, Gabriel’s rush of giddiness comes to a halt: “The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to grow angrily in his veins.” As far as emotional language is concerned, this is perhaps the strongest description in the entire story. Both the mental and bodily representations of this sudden anger are first described as dull before growing almost uncontrollable. The scene continues with Gabriel’s wife telling him the story of her relationship with Michael Furey, including how he had died for her. The tale of Furey’s death inspires this last example of direct reporting, which shows, I think, perfectly the intensity of Gabriel’s internal struggles and the realization that he has failed to love his wife as much as his wife’s dead lover once did:
A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself.”
Joyce doesn’t use indirect reporting as much direct reporting in “The Dead,” but there are still some fine examples. Joyce’s focus on Gabriel’s internal state leaves little room for indirect emotional commentary, but he uses the technique increasingly near the end of the story where, instead of primarily reacting, Gabriel begins looking at his wife and trying to interpret her mood.
First, here is an example from earlier in the story when in the second act, so to speak, after his conflicted exchange with the journalist, Miss Ivors, on the dance floor, Gabriel becomes self-conscious and tries to figure out why she suddenly wants to leave the party: “Gabriel asked himself was he the cause of her abrupt departure. But she did not seem to be in ill humour: she had gone away laughing.” In this description, Gabriel is attempting to exonerate himself from blame, but he is attempting to do so by indirectly reporting the emotional state of the woman just before she leaves. I’ve found that indirect reporting can also contain information about the character commenting on the emotion, and here is a good example. Although he is providing emotional information about this woman, the narrator is also showing the reader Gabriel’s frame of mind and how that affects his interpretation of the woman’s emotional state.
But to return to the end of the story — once Gabriel and his wife have gone to their hotel room, he feels a sudden afflatus of love and sexual attraction for his wife and he thinks she is feeling attracted to him. Gabriel’s emotions in this scene swing wildly as I’ve already shown in my discussion of direct reporting, but here, Gabriel also attempts to read his wife’s emotions. When she has not reacted to his affection the way Gabriel hoped she would, he asks himself why. “Why did she seem so abstracted? He did not know how he could begin. Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord!” Although he is not making a clear statement about what he believes is bothering his wife, the questions Gabriel poses internally do provide commentary on the woman’s emotional state. From those questions, the reader knows she is distant, perhaps hesitant, and emotionally unresponsive to the love Gabriel is attempting to display. Like the first example of indirect reporting, this commentary also supports the emotional representation of Gabriel himself. He poses these questions internally, as well as hoping that she will do something differently, without ever speaking directly to her.
Joyce’s story provides many examples of how the third technique of physical manifestation is almost always informed or aided by direct reporting. Going back to my first example of direct reporting, in the passage which shows the gloominess that Gabriel experiences early on in the narrative, the narrator expands on how Gabriel attempts to dispel the gloom by “arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie.” This example provides a strong outward manifestation of Gabriel’s emotions, but the action of rearranging his cuffs and bow-tie would not be as effective without the clear purpose behind the action: dispelling the gloom that comes over him. Tying such clear emotions with a character’s natural physical reaction to those emotions creates an extremely successful bit of characterization in only a few words.
Finally, I’d like to return again to the end of the story where the narrator gives an intimate view of Gabriel’s relationship with his wife. After an agonizing back-and-forth inside his own mind about wanting to be affectionate with his wife and alternately wanting to possess her violently, Gabriel finally reacts to a kiss she gives him: “Gabriel, trembling with delight at her sudden kiss and at the quaintness of her phrase, put his hands on her hair and began smoothing it.” This is really a good example of how a strongly physical scene, or sentence really, is aided so much by the inclusion of a small example of direct reporting.
When I first selected this text, I was attempting to use it as an example of pure physical manifestation, primarily because so much of the description is physical. But it was also this example that informed my decision to focus on how physical manifestations are informed by directly stated emotions. If the directly stated emotion of delight were removed, the reader would be left with Gabriel trembling at his wife’s kiss and smoothing her hair. Although it would remain a touching moment, with all of Gabriel’s emotional conflict, the reader might be left wondering if he was in fact nervous or overwhelmed or even feeling guilty. But much like the previous scene where Gabriel was about to carve the goose, this is a brief moment of reprieve, and the inclusion of that delight tells the reader that Gabriel believes his wife has felt his adoration and that all is well. The act of smoothing her hair is the continuation of that adoration and, in light of the story’s ending, perhaps Gabriel’s most admirable attempt at loving his wife as well as dead lover had before.
This final excerpt stands on its own as an example of this third technique, but in reading the story as a whole with a focus on the emotional elements, I really began to see how the constant, consistent inclusion of clear emotional language and motivation builds a foundation and then an entire structure that manifests in a character who is wholly understandable, regardless of how irrational his behavior or thoughts may seem on their own. And as a writer, that certainly sounds like an achievement I would welcome in my own work.
Good Country People
The second story I would like to discuss is Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” In this story, O’Connor uses a shifting third-person limited narrator and a healthy dose of irony to show how false perceptions and assumptions can have unforeseen consequences. The story is about an unassuming mother, Mrs. Hopewell, who seems to find the best in people, and her cynical daughter Hulga who is handicapped by a childhood accident that left her using a prosthetic leg. The action of the story really begins when a naïve, seemingly simple-minded boy visits the house selling Bibles. After being invited to dinner, Hulga agrees to meet him the following day for a picnic with plans to take advantage of the young man, who she assumes is a dumb, backwoods Christian. As their date progresses, Hulga is tricked by the boy into removing her prosthetic leg, which he steals, leaving Hulga helpless in a barn loft. In this story, character emotion is especially important because it sets up the dark humor and irony that are trademarks of O’Connor’s work.
One of the first examples of direct reporting in the story does not describe either of the two primary characters, but rather the nosy and stubborn Mrs. Freeman whose husband works for Mrs. Hopewell. The description of Mrs. Freeman comes from the third-person narrator, but it is given from the daughter’s point of view:
Mrs. Freeman would take on strange resentments and for days together she would be sullen but the source of her displeasure was always obscure.”
This example of direct reporting clearly describes the emotion Mrs. Freeman would take on, that of being sullen, but also adds a bit of emotional characterization; not only does she exhibit her sullen mood in her behavior, but it can come from unexpected sources and even last for days. At the beginning of the essay, I used “Bob is sad” as a simple example of emotional reporting, and O’Connor’s line here a perfect example of how an author can say exactly that: “Mrs. Freeman is sullen,” but also how sullen — “for days” — and why (in this case, she directly states that the reason for the sullen mood is not always clear).
After the young Bible salesman has been introduced, the narrator provides the first bit of information that suggests some contradiction to Hulga’s cynical demeanor. After the young man stays for dinner, she agrees to meet him the following day for a picnic, which is a surprising turn in itself since the young salesman seems like a person Hulga would normally avoid or spurn. Her agreeing to meet him is surprising enough, but the larger surprise comes when the narrator introduces the reader to a vulnerable side of the young woman by directly reporting her emotions when she believes she has been stood up:
She looked up and down the empty highway and had the furious feeling that she had been tricked, that he had only meant to make her walk to the gate after the idea of him.
Here, we get the direct use of the noun “feeling” to accompany the emotion of fury. She is not only upset or angry that the boy she agreed to meet with, a boy she would normally mock, has stood her up, but she is furious. The passage has the added bonus of expressing her insecurity with the accompanying exposition and shows the reader that Hulga may actually be more defensive than gruff and impatient.
Although O’Connor shifts her third-person point of view throughout the story, the reader gets very little information about the young salesman aside from what is given by other characters. In one example of indirect reporting, the emotional impact of Hulga’s statement of atheism on the young man is described: “At this he stopped and whistled. ‘No!’ he exclaimed as if he were too astonished to say anything else.” Hulga’s perspective here provides what she imagines the young man’s emotional reaction would be.
O’Connor uses direct reporting quite a bit, but very often she combines it with physical manifestation. In my first example, Mrs. Hopewell is reacting to the young Bible salesman’s pitch. He presents himself as simple, doing the only thing he’s capable of to help provide for his family. He mentions that he has a physical defect that prevents him from other opportunities, which has a strong effect on the mother.
He and Joy had the same condition! She knew that her eyes were filling with tears but she collected herself quickly and murmured, “Won’t you stay for dinner? We’d love to have you!” and was sorry the instant she heard herself say it.
There is a great deal of emotional information in this example. First, the thought that the boy has a similar physical condition to her daughter is informed by multiple direct reports of the mother’s emotions toward her daughter’s ailment earlier in the story. The physical manifestation of this emotion comes in her eyes filling up with tears. The reader understands that her tears are coming from both her sadness about her own daughter and sympathy for this young man and possibly tears of joy because her daughter has found a co-sufferer. However, there is more direct reporting that follows this to better depict the woman’s exact emotional state. The fact that she collects herself, asks the young man to dinner, and then is instantly sorry she extended the invitation shows her struggle with her own emotions.
Now, finally, I’d like to show how O’Connor uses physical description to represent emotion in a complicated and calculating character like Hulga. Unlike her mother, Hulga is the type of character who does not express her emotions in a direct or (connected) physical way; however, it is still important for an author to be able to describe both the internal and external simultaneously for effect, and that is exactly what O’Connor does in this example:
She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood.
“She sat staring at him” is the kind of line I used to use in my own work. But O’Connor goes further. Whereas I would leave that line alone and beg the audience to make an intuitive leap, O’Connor’s narrator gives a deeper physical description (stoic face, freezing-blue eyes), as well as the emotional reason behind this description because there was nothing in her stare or her eyes or her face that suggested she was moved. Then we get the key word but, and we know there is a shift. Then the narrator gives us a direct report of Hulga’s contradictory, but powerful, emotional response. Although the description is of her heart stopping and her brain pumping her blood, the narrator uses the verb feel — “felt as if”, telling the reader immediately that this is not a physical reality, but rather an emotional reaction to the young man’s words. This emotional information supports the final scene of the story when the young Bible salesman, who has moved Hulga to trust and vulnerability, removes her artificial leg and steals it, revealing himself as a fraud and a rather twisted individual.
— Walker Griffy
Walker Griffy received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches composition and literature at Santa Monica College.