I tell my creative writing students, “Show us what your characters are feeling. If you were in court, you couldn’t just say, ‘He was upset.’ You’d need to give evidence of that presumed state of mind. Was he waving a stick and shouting as he chased a miscreant down the block?”
If you write that, you’ll be showing us he was upset.
Then, last week, I was in court, seated on a jury.
Sure the trial took all of 20 minutes. And my panel and I only needed another 20 minutes to deliberate.
But the point is that the judge, a slim, active guy who had bounced over to the jury to shake our hands, interrupted the assistant district attorney (ADA) to say exactly what I’ve been telling my writing students.
The only witness for the prosecution was a patrolman who had questioned a motorist who was walking away from his car.
“What was his frame of mind?” the young ADA asked her witness.
I became all attention, then. Would the witness be allowed to describe what he thought the defendant’s frame of mind was, or would he have to tell the court only what he saw and heard?
Ruffling his thick black hair, the judge didn’t hesitate. “You can’t ask him that,” he told the ADA. “Your witness can’t know what was in the defendant’s mind or how the defendant was feeling. You can only ask him about the defendant’s behavior.”
“Aha!” I thought.
The witness replied, “When I called him over, he told me his name, and said he wasn’t aware of such and such.” (I’m being discreet here; I don’t think I’m supposed to reveal details.)
I sighed with satisfaction.
So, it was true. Just as in writing, in court, we’re not supposed to guess how someone’s feeling. We have to show, not tell, our characters’ feelings.
In this case, a writer could take the liberty of writing, “He sauntered towards me, glanced quickly over his shoulder, then answered my questions.” We might describe the tone of the defendant’s voice: maybe “sullen sounding.” After all, we’re not actually in court, and we need to show our readers how the character presented himself. But, we don’t want to explain the character’s feelings.
For useful guidelines on how to pull this off, see My Book Therapy: Tutorial on Showing versus Telling.