I’ve been working a lot with editorial clients on the idea of developing subtle interiority by using active verb choices. I’ve written a lot about it, both in the book and on the blog. One of my favorite posts, which serves as good preparation for this post, is about interiority in writing. A lot of writers do balk on the issue of, “Well, if I share the character’s thoughts/feelings/reactions, isn’t that just another version of telling?” As we all know from the old adage, telling bad, showing good. (Here’s a handy post that digs into what show don’t tell really means.)
Telling vs. Showing in Writing
It’s true that, when you use interiority, you are technically telling. But if you think about it, you tell all the time in writing. A storm is brewing. She puts her phone on the coffee table, waiting for it to ring. The car is blue. Telling is alive and well in fiction and there’s no need to make it the enemy, except for when you tell about characters and emotions. (She is a bully. He is sad.) That’s what really makes prose lie flat on the page, and that is where we want writers to stretch a little and show how she treats other people, or how he’s ready to give up on himself, and what that might look like to this particular character. Of course, I would prefer that you do this without using too many familiar physical clichés (butterflies in the stomach for nerves, heart fluttering for love, etc.; more tips to avoid cliches here.)
I could go on and on about this issue. And there are a lot of shades to it, as you can tell. By now, you probably feel like I’m putting you in an impossible box. “I need to tell when it makes sense to tell, but not when it comes to emotions, which I should show, only I can’t use hearts, eyes, stomachs, or any other physical clichés when I’m trying to figure out how to write emotions in a story… WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING, MARY KOLE, AND WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE ME CRAZY?”
“Emotion in Description”
Whoa, buddy. Take a step back. All of these posts are to help you think about what interiority truly is, and when you should aim to tell, and aim to show. Take what makes sense to you, leave what doesn’t. I hope some sort of larger logic emerges once you study this part of my story theory. In the meantime, there’s also another subtle use of interiority that completely circumvents the show vs. tell argument. A cheat! Brilliant!
Well, maybe not a cheat, but definitely another tool you can use. It’s subtle interiority. And the best way of explaining it is “emotion in description.” This works whether you’re in third person (usually close third is the best candidate) or first. And it’s a key component, for me, anyway, of that other frustrating concept: voice.
Subtle Interiority Via Word Choice and Active Verb
The key is to inject emotion toward an outward object, place, or person via word choice in description or narration. If someone is annoying, maybe your character describes them as “grating her way through the story.” Compare that to “she told a story.” Changing one active verb lends emotion to it, and, without showing or telling, we come to understand that the narrator doesn’t think much of the object of the description. We get emotion secondhand without having to conquer it directly. Look at how emotion creeps in:
Some Examples of Evocative Active Verb Choice
“He parked his vehicle” vs. “His gaudy Beemer sleazed across two parking spots” (exaggerated, of course)
“She ate a sandwich” vs. “She pecked at her food”
“He kissed her” vs. “He slimed her” vs. “He devoured her”
I’m mostly doing this with active verbs so far, but you can play with adjectives, too:
“The skyline” vs. “The noxious smog-obscured wasteland” vs. “The glittering metropolis”
“The countryside” vs. “The tranquil retreat” vs. “The cauldron of boredom”
“Her face” vs. “Her luminous visage” vs. “Her fug mug”
And here’s where this all comes back to voice and character. The guy who waxes poetic about his crush’s “luminous visage” is not the same as the catty girl who knocks her former acolyte’s “fug mug.” Description and should contain hints at emotion, which is another way of incorporating interiority, defining character, and it helps you to find your writing voice. Whew! It’s all coming together, folks!
Struggling with your balance of showing, telling, and interiority? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll apply these concepts in a completely custom way to your manuscript.
5 Replies to “Creating Subtle Interiority: The Active Verb”
Excellent post… It’s just when I think I have the hang of this tell vs show, I read something like this and am ever more thinking I don’t have it.
Lovely post, and thanks for the links…
I LOVE that! What a perfect way to show both voice and emotion by sneaking it in there – though I wouldn’t call it easy because you still have to find a way to describe people or things or actions that’s fresh and true to the character. But I think once you get that down, the voice should flow 🙂
Another brilliant post. I’ve always believed in making verbs work for you but never thought about those same verbs conveying emotion. Same with adjectives.