Letting Your Character Tell the Story

There is a scene in my manuscript where two of the main character’s friends have a disagreement and the main character is understandably upset by this rift between her friends. When I was writing the first draft of the scene, I tried to show how upset the main character was by describing how she was feeling. I tried to make it powerful and poignant—I even included a metaphor!

And it did not work at all.

In fact, after writing the scene, I left myself a note that went something like this: “Ugh! Too melodramatic! Fix this!!”

(Yes, even my editing notes were too melodramatic. It was bad.)

I knew there was a problem with the scene, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Really, I didn’t even know what the problem was, just that there was one. I couldn’t identify what, though. After all, I was trying to show, not tell. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But the scene just wasn’t working.

Sometime later, my brother and I had a conversation about journal writing. He mentioned something by Arthur Henry King that stuck with me.

King said:

Abstract statements about our feelings are boring and don’t really communicate. But a plain account may communicate a great deal. If we write down faithfully what happens to us, our feelings will come through, and they will be felt indirectly and therefore truly. So rather than say how we felt on our marriage day, we should try to describe what happened to us on that marriage day. Our feelings will come through much better than if we just say how we felt.”

Huh. That was different. The more I thought about it, though, the more sense it made.

character tell story.png

What I was doing in that scene was trying to convey how my character was feeling through those kind of abstract statements King was talking about, and they didn’t work. Although I was trying to show how she felt, in actuality, I was trying to convince readers of it by telling them how she felt. Oh, sure, I was in her head and telling things from her perspective, but it was still telling. There are times when a story needs telling, I’ve learned, but this was not one of them.

As I revised, I tried to keep King’s statement in mind. Rather than trying to show how she was feeling through physical sensations (like stomach churning and fists clenching) or her descriptions of her emotions, I tried to stick with what actually happened in the scene from her perspective.

It works so much better. When I kept the story focused on what was happening in the scene as she would see and interpret it, the scene started coming together. It turned out that I didn’t need to think of a new, creative way to describe being upset. I didn’t even need the metaphor. What I really needed was to let my main character tell what happened in her own words.

What tips do you have for writing scenes with strong emotions? Do you have any favorite books that you feel deal with emotion well?


20180131_162833 (4)Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

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