John Thornton Williams explains a better way to “show don’t tell” how your characters are feeling: through indirection of image, or projecting their emotions onto the world around them.
“By indirection of image, I mean an instance where a writer takes into consideration how a certain character would experience a particular setting or image based on his/her emotional state. Something as simple as a car parked on the street surely looks different to a lottery winner than to someone who just got evicted.
“In other words, indirection of image is a way to take abstract emotions and project them onto something concrete. Doing so creates the potential to explore interiority at a greater depth than what’s afforded by mere exposition. It’s a way to portray emotions that transcend simply happy or sad or anxious and instead swirl together a whole host of others, ones that are more intense—emotions that a story has perhaps been carrying for pages as subtext.”
If you write through a filter of your character’s emotional state, that point of view will create a richer emotional experience for your readers. Rather than tell us how your character feels, you can take advantage of every element in your story world to show us.
Thornton is a fiction writer but his idea of indirection of image is relevant to most of us no matter what we write.
Projecting emotions in real life
I find that tying this idea back to my own life makes it easier to understand. I’ll confess: I experience the world around me based on my emotional state in real life, too.
For example, one day I’m in a good mood, I go outside, the sun is shining, I relish the warmth of the sun on my skin… Another day, I’m sad, I go outside, the sun is relentless, it bleaches the color out of everything, the adobe casitas in my neighborhood look like an abandoned pueblo… On a third day, I go outside angry, I squint against the harsh glare of the sun, the brightness feels like a personal assault, all the casitas have their curtains drawn like the neighborhood is under siege…
It’s the same sun, the same neighborhood, and I’m the same person. The only thing different is my mood, which colours my subjective experience of my environment. I project my own (abstract) emotions on to the external (concrete) world.
We have the option to do this when we write, too, and let our characters’ subjective emotional experience colour the text.
[Note: I’m not actually a moody person and I find our neighborhood casitas look like they’re made from powdered hot chocolate; when I go for a walk, I want to hug all the adobe buildings and maybe lick them, too–but none of that really serves my example, hence the poetic license.]
Projecting emotions in different writing forms
Poets set the standard for projecting abstract emotions onto the concrete. Poets can write a poem about “sadness” without ever using the word “sad”–without dialogue, an inner monologue, or even an obvious, visible “main character”.
When you read a great non-fiction article in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, or Texas Monthly, that prose isn’t “neutral”–what the writers choose to highlight and the language they write with is filtered through a point of view that can convey powerful subtext. Non-fiction writers project abstract emotions onto the concrete as well–whether they do it consciously or not.
Playwrights don’t share the same responsibility as writers in other forms to describe their characters’ environment, but when they write dialogue, their characters’ emotional states affect the way those characters experience, interpret and talk about their world.
Film and TV writers have the options of both playwrights and non-fiction writers. Like playwrights, screenwriters can filter dialogue through a character’s emotional state to convey subtext. But like non-fiction writers, screenwriters can also describe a character’s environment and actions through that same filter. Bringing a character’s internal point of view to the description of the story world is part of what constitutes tone in screenwriting, as in fiction.
How to project character emotions in your own writing
- Ask yourself: what is your character’s emotional state (in this scene or beat or moment)?
- Look at your text through the lens or filter of that emotion.
- How does your character project that emotion onto what s/he sees?
- How does that filter change how your character talks?
- How do you as the writer project that emotion onto what you describe?
The way that I write, I am most likely to go through these steps when I am rewriting, after a rough draft is already on the page, when I’m ready to fine-tune the text.
I might also ask myself these questions as a way to get unstuck or to troubleshoot a scene: What’s my character’s emotional state? When I look through that lens, what do I see that I didn’t see before?
If you write with a conscious awareness of “indirection of image”, or projecting your character’s emotional state onto the story world, I’d appreciate your tips for how you do this in practice. If this is a new idea for you and you give it a try, I’d love to know how it works for you.