Physics explores the essence and behavior of matter and energy. In terms of fiction, this parallels the distinction between how characters feel and what they do or say. The difference is crucial, because when you say that Nancy is “angry,” or worse, “incredibly angry,” you’re not saying much. You’re simply “telling.” To “show,” readers need to participate in what you want to convey. For that, you need subtext or physicality, whether literal or symbolic.
Instead of abstractions like “rage” or “frustration,” let readers hear how a character via what she doesn’t say. For example, “I see. That’s all you have to say about it.” The two sentences subtly capture an entire history.
Alternatively, reveal Nancy’s fisted hands, fiery scowl, squinted eyes, or her tone—that whisper thinly veils the urge to shriek.
Tip: Make emotion tangible.
In “Showing–and Telling—Emotion in Fiction,” Dave King observes that “All good writing starts with good watching,” and, yes, that’s a terrific place to begin.
Waiting in line, passing time in the airport, or nibbling in a restaurant, subtly, of course, check out body language. Can you guess how people are feeling even if you can’t hear what they’re saying? And if you can, why? What did you observe?
For further revelation, consider the work of Auguste Rodin. According to Nicole Myers, associate curator of European Painting and Sculpture,
Rodin’s capacity to capture the human spirit in all its nuances was unrivaled. He was one of the first artists to consider fragments and partial figures to be complete works of art capable of expressing even the most complex thoughts and emotions.
Even without knowing the titles of these two works from the current Rodin exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago, we can guess which emotions the artist wanted to convey.
But how does that work in fiction? Actually, with remarkable similarity. Discard the notion that anything intangible, straightforward, and intellectual can capture feeling. In Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides describes this phenomenon:
Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy, or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’
When we’re feeling emotions rather than writing about them, the event happens in a body. It needn’t even be a human one. There’s no question about whether cats are bored or irritated or dogs grateful. No words needed.
Words, of course, are the writer’s only tool. But some words don’t do what they’re supposed to. A lot of fiction is summary, often quite abstract. Emotions, though, are born in the realm of sensation. So if you want readers to feel them, you can’t describe. You must make feelings live.