One area of exposition that novice writers often overlook is emotional states during character descriptions.
Describing a character’s gestures and body movements allows the reader to infer that emotional state while adding a level of detail to the text that helps the reader better imagine the scene and become more engaged in the story. So rather than writing They grew sad upon hearing the news, instead show their sadness with They hung their heads low upon hearing the news.
A simple guideline is that telling states a fact. In fiction, however, telling means the reader doesn’t have to infer what the actual fact is. That sounds like it would be a good thing, but it actually limits the reader's participation in the story. Consider this example of telling a character’s emotional state:
We pulled into the parking lot of The Pink Pony. I was more than a little nervous.
“I was a little more than nervous” is a perfect example of telling rather than showing. It states a direct fact – the narrator is nervous – rather than lets the reader infer that she is.
To resolve this, you want to use an evocative image – usually a physical gesture – that allows the reader to conclude the narrator is nervous. You might instead write:
We pulled into the parking lot of The Pink Pony. My hand shook, as I grabbed the door handle.
“My hand shook, as I grabbed the door handle” doesn’t directly state that the narrator is nervous, but the reader easily can deduce this. When showing a character’s emotional state, selecting just the right physical detail is vital. After all, varying degrees of a general physical gesture infer quite different emotional states. For instance, if something humorous is said, a chuckle shows a stronger response than a grin but less of a response that an all-out laugh.
In addition, the description of the physical gesture must be balanced against its importance in the rest of the story. You can’t be too spare in description but can’t be long-winded, either. Learning exactly what is appropriate is a matter of mastering the craft of writing.
Finally, you’ll have to be consistent with the details. For example, two jokes of equal humor should generate the same response each time from a character. With a little creativity on the writer’s part, this physical tic even can be a marker that becomes associated with a specific character; consider that whenever Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame finds something interesting, he raises a lone eyebrow.
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