The Wellspring of Emotion and Belief

Sat Jun 30 2018

This is the final installment in my "show, don't tell" series (see part 1 if you're just encountering this series now). I like practical, hands-on advice, so the previous installments have talked a lot about how to do it.

But I haven't talked much about what the point of showing is or why you should care. As this installment's title suggests, the point is this: showing is where a reader's emotional responses to your story come from, and is what creates your reader's belief in what's happening in the story.

Showing creates emotion

Think for a minute about what causes people to have emotional reactions. I know, you came here for writing advice, not psychology, but stick with me. It's the same thing anyway.

Fundamentally, we have emotions because situations cause us to have strong realizations.

The strongest emotion I ever felt was--thankfully--just a nightmare in which my daughter died. I didn't see it happen, or even know what happened. That was "off screen," as it were. But in the dream-moment when I learned about it and realized she was gone, I was completely gutted, overcome with such a flood of anguish that I collapsed to the ground.

It wasn't the event itself that caused my emotions, but my moment of dawning awareness about the implications and ramifications of the event. So too with my immense sense of relief upon waking and realizing it wasn't true.

Since that's how emotion works, it follows that readers will only have emotional reactions to your story if they are able to have strong realizations about the story's situations.

As I've covered in the previous installments of this series, showing allows readers to discover their own realizations, and therefore enables them to have those moments of dawning awareness.

When you tell instead of show, you hand readers the conclusions directly, preventing the realizations from originating within the reader. In doing so, you short-circuit that emotional process and greatly mute any emotional response they might have felt to the events of your story.

Showing creates belief

The intellectual side of showing closely mirrors the emotional side. When you tell, you're saying to readers "Believe this, and this, and this other thing too."

That's fine for anything tangible, like "the house was painted a garish red," because in fiction words stand in for the reader's five senses. If the reader was actually present in the scene, they'd be able to see that for themselves. As they're not, they see it through your words instead.

But you can't directly tell readers about anything intangible (the "unseen" from last week's post) or once again you'll short-circuit the mental processes that create belief.

Think back on the people you've met in your life, both the friends and the jerks. Think about when you met them, and how quickly you were able to tell whether you wanted to be that person's friend or would prefer they not talk to you at all.

Was there a tattoo on the person's forehead labeled "friend" or "jerk"? No. Was there someone standing next to them telling you "this person is super-nice. You should be friends!" or "ooh, stay away from this jerkwad." No.

Those are beliefs that you came to on your own--and often shockingly fast--because of what that person's overall behavior showed you.

Or think about times when someone has offered you an opinion about another person. Did that opinion carry the same weight as your own opinion? Likely not, because regardless of how accurate their statement might be, you also have to consider how much you trust them, whether they're pursuing their own agenda by saying so, etc.

But your own conclusions are implicitly trustworthy because you know exactly how you came to them, and thus you treat them as beliefs.

Since that's how belief works, it follows that readers will only believe in your story's intangibles if those beliefs originate in their own conclusions.

A picture is worth a thousand words

If you glossed over the image at the top of this post, of Dakota Brown, USN, reuniting with his wife and meeting his newborn son for the first time after a 6 month deployment, go look at it again.

What emotions do you see in that image? I'm not going to list them, because you can see them just fine for yourself. As a useful exercise, you might even think about which of last week's shadows of the unseen in that picture are responsible for your conclusions.

The point is, you already know what those people are feeling, because it shows. You don't need me to narrate the emotions in the picture for you. All you need is to be able to see their faces.

And if you have an emotional reaction to that picture--perhaps because you've had a similar experience in your life, or perhaps just because you're missing someone you care about who is far away--that, too, comes from you realizing something emotionally powerful about the moment depicted in that picture.

Now ask yourself, do you believe that Dakota and his wife are having those feelings? Of course you do. Because you're the one who convinced yourself what the emotions were to begin with, from what you saw in the picture.

Nobody told you what to think about it. You found your own conclusions, all by yourself, from what was shown. No telling involved.

When writing we work with the thousand words rather than the picture, and all the techniques from the previous four parts of this series, but the strategy is the same.

A writer's job is only to create the conditions for readers to have their own moments of dawning awareness that lead to emotion and belief.