Monday, June 15, 2009


It’s not Showing, It’s not Telling, It’s Internalizing

by Tom Mach
© 2009 by Tom Mach



I can’t help but wonder whether television and movies as well as the emphasis of technology-based communications over face-to-face communications made us less sensitive to interpreting the emotions of others. TV, for instance, does all the work for us in terms of letting us actually see an angry criminal or a despondent mother. We don’t have to use our brain to take written words for the true feelings of these characters, have them regenerated into our brains, and internalize those emotions. Our eyes just take in what they see on TV and we are instantly told what the character’s emotions are. No brain-internalizing.

To a small extent, we do a smidgen of “internalizing” when we use technology to communicate. That is, if we send someone an email, or a text message, or “tweet” someone we are send words and expecting the recipient to translate those words into thoughts. However, these are generally short bursts of words (Twitter limits “tweets” to 140 characters), and the sender often makes no effort to show the reader the true scope and flavor of his or her feelings. A tweet might say something like this:

It’s insane the way the government spends our hard-earned tax money on those pork projects. It makes me furious. Something ought to be done.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t “grab” us—unless we can dredge up our own experiences in this topic and superimpose them on that statement. The sentence, though expressed as an opinion, is translated to the brain as “fact” but we don’t get as emotionally involved as if we were presented with a person whom we learn to care about and who had been involved with a similar situation. For instance we can describe a woman released from prison who found a job but because of the high tax burden coupled with her other expenses, was harassed by the IRS and ultimately found guilty of non-payment of taxes. She is sent back to prison, and—no longer able to rejoin her husband who recently filed for divorce—she reads that the government spent a large sum of money studying the sex life of a hamster. The injustice of it all is like a slap in the face If we add more information about this woman—her history, her appearance, her young children, and the injustices she had faced in her past—we find that the simple 40-character comment on Twitter now carries a lot more meaning.

One of the points that writing workshop leaders like to stress in the importance of “showing” and not “telling.” While that’s true, I would go a step further, and make two other points: (1) it is not possible to always “show” in a novel, and (2) when we do “show” we should strive, wherever possible, to influence the reader to internalize a character’s emotions. With regard to the first point, there are times a novelist must “tell” a situation to give the story proper pacing. “Showing” every single situation would dramatically increase the size of the novel and make reading quite ponderous. Take any novel and you’ll find this is true. A character has his shoes shined at the airport and then rushes to the gate. The novelist doesn’t get into a thorough description of the shoeshine person and his emotions (unless these are crucial to the plot). Why would that be necessary? It would bore the reader, lose continuity of the story, and slow down the plot. Concerning the second point, if we’re attempting to show the jealousy a wife has over her husband’s secret lover, we’ll be getting into two powerful emotions—anger and betrayal. We can show these emotions by way of dialogue (a nasty conversation between the wife and his lover), by internal dialogue (the wife bringing into her mind other episodes of her husband infidelity and how she responded to them), or by describing in vivid detail her reactions (the wife throwing all his clothes out the window, flattening the car tires of her husband’s lover, etc.).

Sometimes we have to show but can’t expect the reader to internalize a character’s feelings. For instance, we could show the horror of a cat being cruelly tortured by being fried in a microwave. Or, we can show the majestic beauty of a forest by visualizing the way the redwoods climb through the mist, the dampness of the morning air, and the scampering of squirrels hunting for food—all the while comparing the majesty of the forest with the quiet humility of a country church.

One difficulty I have always had in describing how a person feels is by describing their facial ticks. But since that would require a lengthy discussion, I’ll leave that for next time.

1 comment:

Stargazer said...

Very thought provoking & enjoyable. Hopefully, as we get to know one another in this Twittersphere (is this a new word? Please tell me that it is. I do so want to be famous!)surely we will connect on some emotional level. So far I have a Philippine dear girl calling me "Mommie" and a wonderful cancer survivor calling me "Lovely lady."

May I soon begin to call you "friend."

Pat Marcantel(harvesterworker)
Stargazer is my blogger name.