Anger, nervousness, and fear: These are the names we’ve given to poignant and complex emotions that can overpower even Zeno of Citium himself. As children, we experienced these emotions purely with neither the Freudian ego to reign them in nor the two-syllable words with which to label them. As we grow, we learn to recognize them in ourselves and others and acquire words for them: angry, nervous, scared. This is useful for communication in relationships, but in creative writing, these words are regrettably weak in capturing the intensity and texture of real human experience.
He was angry. I was scared. Show, Don’t Tell!
Think of the last time you had the misfortune to witness the raw, unfettered wrath of a red-faced toddler when Mummy said no: tears, saliva, fists clenched, a shriek that makes your blood curdle, and violence to boot—teddies and small fists are flying. There is not a word soothing or firm enough to penetrate the deafening shield of rage that pulsates around him. Think demon possession. And well… he’s angry.
This is what anger looks like before we learn to control or be embarrassed by it. Although we learn to deal with the emotion as we mature, what we feel in response to an unfair accusation or an act of betrayal is just as brutal. It can take over us; it’s blinding. It’s difficult to think clearly and nearly impossible to communicate effectively or fairly.
Regardless of where on the scale of intensity your character’s emotion falls, say, slightly miffed to murderous rage, there’s much to show for it beyond the woefully insufficient label “angry.” Describing these nuances reify the emotions in a way that simply naming them cannot. What does anger really feel like? What sensations are there? In the skin, face, finger tips, chest? What unreasonable thoughts or imagined scenarios of revenge pop up in our minds? If it’s expressed externally, what does it look like? Instead of telling us that your character is angry, use sensations, behaviors, or train of thought to show us.
Textual Mentor: How to Show Angry, Nervous, or Scared
So let’s let Stephen Kelman show us how he approached the expression of anger, nervousness, and fear in a scene from Pigeon English. Eleven-year-old Harri and ginger-haired Dean are intercepted by an intimidating gang of bullies. In a first-person past-tense narrative that uses screenplay-like attribution and internal dialogue, Harri’s responses to the unpleasant encounter invites us in to feel with him.
X-Fire wouldn’t let us past. They were waiting outside the cafeteria. They were all standing in our way and they wouldn’t move. You didn’t know if it was a trick or for real.
Dizzy: ‘What’s up, pussy boys?’
Clipz: ‘I heard you failed the first test. That’s weak, man!’
I wanted to be a bomb. I wanted to knock them all down. That’s what it felt like. I kept waiting for him to laugh but his face was still hard like he meant it. Like we were enemies.
X-Fire: ‘Don’t worry, Ghana. I’ll think of something easier for you next time, you’ll be alright. What you got then, Ginger?’
Dean went all stiff. My belly went cold.
Dean: ‘I ain’t got nothing.’
Dizzy: ‘Don’t lie to us, man. What’s in your pockets? Show me.’
We couldn’t move. He had to show them or we’d never get past. It wasn’t even fair.
Anger: Harri’s anger is illustrated by an urge (i.e., to be bomb, to knock them all down). We benefit from the ideas and images that bomb evokes: to burst, to explode, destruction, strength, blinding light, victory, revenge. But it’s even more complex than this; it wasn’t even necessarily unadulterated anger. He was angry, but he sought confirmation that he should be angry, that it wasn’t a joke. He reads the anger or disappointment on Clipz’s face and shows it to us though visual description (i.e., hard) and the implications (i.e., we were enemies).
Nervousness/Fear: Simply and effectively, Harri shows us Dean’s fear through body language (i.e., Dean went all stiff) and his own fear through sensation (i.e., My belly went cold.) He could have merely told us that they were nervous, but it would have greatly diminished its effect on us.
Kelman’s choices provide imagery that informs us that Harri is angry and that he and Dean are scared—both without once using either emotional label. This is what writers should strive for. Instead of telling us that your character is angry, show us. How? Start by stripping away names of emotions and revising until the emotions are evident without them.
Know of a good textual example of these or any other emotions? Please share!
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