Hearts hammering, breaths catching, stomachs roiling…
Reading manuscript after manuscript, lately I’ve noticed a pattern: writers rely too heavily on body parts—specifically the heart, lungs, guts, mouth, eyes, cheeks—to show character reactions/feelings/responses. It’s natural, I suppose, to fall back on the most obvious degree of description (aside from flat-out telling the emotion), but that’s the problem—it’s obvious, it’s easy, and guess what? It’s lazy.
So, if we can’t tell what emotion the character is feeling (i.e. The way he looked at me angered me.) we should be able to showcase those feelings in physical reactions (i.e. The way he looked at me sent a rush of fire to my cheeks.). Right?
Like I said, this type of physical telling is a shortcut. And believe me, it comes across as such. (Once you learn to spot them, they pop off the page like a zit on a beauty queen.) Getting across what a character is going through or feeling without the use of these overused bodily reactions takes skill and practice, and is in no way easy. And worse, there’s not a step-by-step formula.
Many authors are masters of this. John Green, for one. Let’s look at a paragraph I pulled from Looking for Alaska:
Dolores insisted that Alaska and I share the bed, and she slept on the pull-out while the Colonel was out in his tent. I worried he would get cold, but frankly I wasn’t about to give up my bed with Alaska. We had separate blankets, and there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night.
Now, for those who haven’t read this AMAZING book, just know that Miles really likes Alaska. And this is a perfect example of why Mr. Green is a master, because he didn’t fall back on the obvious reaction Miles would be having sleeping next to the girl he loves and can’t have. No doubt Miles’s heart was racing and his breath was rapid, palms sweaty—all those nervous reactions, but in fact this last line: there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night says WAY more.
Okay let’s look at another example (again from Looking for Alaska because, well, the book is THAT good). This is a conversation Miles has with his friend, the Colonel:
“Yeah, well. If you’re staying here in hopes of making out with Alaska, I sure wish you wouldn’t. If you unmoor her from the rock that is Jake, God have mercy on us all. That would be some drama, indeed. And as a rule, I like to avoid drama.”
“It’s not because I want to make out with her.”
“Hold on.” He grabbed a pencil and scrawled excitedly at the paper as if he’d just made a mathematical breakthrough and then looked back up at me. “I just did some calculations, and I’ve been able to determine that you’re full of shit.”
One simple action accompanied by some punchy dialogue to avoid the tried and untrue. The Colonel didn’t narrow his eyes in suspicion at Miles or widen them in surprise. Didn’t wrinkle his brow. No set jaw or lips pressed flat. No body parts at all!
Excuse me while I fan myself.
So you can see, “showing not telling” isn’t a matter of wording the physical reaction more creatively (i.e. His eyes skimmed over my face and I looked away, feeling as if laser beams were burning into my skin.). Agents, editors, even us interns can spot those too.
It’s not easy, trust me I know. But who said writing was?
(I wrote this while reading John Green. It's been stuck to my computer since.)
Taking the time to authenticate your characters’ reactions (every one of them) will launch your writing to a whole new level. Try it. You’ll see.