I’ve written quite a few posts about how important it is to ‘show’ not ‘tell’ in writing and how important it is to make your characters 3-dimensional. Without having believable characters your readers can relate to, your story is unlikely to be as successful as you might hope.
However, there are some authors who are opposed to showing much emotion in their writing – it’s just not their style. They’re not happy showing facial expressions, voice inflections and tones as they feel it will either detract from the story or it will end up ‘Harlequinesque’.
Some believe the story line is strong enough to carry the characters without making them very relatable to their readers, but even in a plot driven novel, there still has to be some characterisation for the reader to hook into. This is where subtleties come into play.
You don’t have to write reams about your character’s emotions in a given situation and I still believe very strongly that without showing facial expressions and/or tones of voice, your readers won’t relate to your characters in a meaningful way. But, for those who are opposed to ‘showing’ very much, there are ways and means of doing it which will achieve the goal of making your characters more lifelike, although not to the extent some readers would like.
The subtleties are a few well-chosen, well-placed words which will not only allow the reader to explore the character, it can ‘lift’ a whole phrase or section. Being an editor as well as an author these days, I’m in a unique position of seeing this from both sides of the fence.
Here are some examples based on work I’ve done recently. To protect the copyright and integrity of the author’s work (especially as these books aren’t published yet), I’m going to change character names.
First Scenario:A huge family row where one member has allowed his magic to control him, nearly causing his death. His son is trying to appeal to him, telling him his actions could rip the family apart.
His brown eyes stabbed at Peter as he asked,
His brown eyes stabbed accusingly at Peter as he asked,
Can you see how the addition of one word here lifts this line and shows the reader how the speaker feels?
Peter’s face clearly showed his discomfort at Andy’s words.
Peter’s face, downcast eyes and slumped shoulders clearly showed his discomfort at Andy’s words.
Here, the addition of five words makes so much difference to how the reader will connect with the scene.
Second Scenario:A couple are having breakfast and he is trying to extract information from her to do with something which happened in the past.
“Is that all?”
“Is that all?” Her voice was tense.
By adding the words ‘Her voice was tense’, it sets the scene for the reader. They can see immediately she’s uncomfortable and a little stressed.
“No, I won’t talk about him,” she said shaking her head and Frank realised she had the final say on the subject.
“No, I won’t talk about him,” she said shaking her head and Frank realised with a rush of frustration she had the final say on the subject.
This example shows how, with five words, the reader understands what Frank is feeling.
If you’re the sort of writer who feels comfortable showing expressions, there’s no reason why you can’t also use subtleties such as this in your writing too. Not every scene calls for great detail on a character’s face yet something is needed to help set the scene and this is how you do it. You can have the best of both worlds!
If you’re the writer who backs away with your fingers placed in the sign of the cross when someone mentions showing emotion with characters, remember what your readers need and use subtle words and phrases to give them that.
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