The Art of Emotional Composition

Nancy Quatrano has an article in the August 2015 issue of The Florida Writer which caught my eye: “Show vs. Tell: The Art of Emotional Composition”.  I thought that many of the points she made in the article were good.  I just objected to the didactic tone of the article, so I’ll summarise and comment on the points she made.

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Nancy Quatrano

Ms Quatrano makes the point that there are three way for an author to transfer information to the reader: exposition, dialogue and narrative.  Exposition is an invasion by the author into the story; it is characterised by the use of the word ‘had’.  An example would be; “Ann had told John that she was getting a divorce.” Expositions are shortcuts, or flashbacks, and involve the use of the passive voice.  Ms Quatrano recommends the use of exposition “lightly and carefully sprinkled in, like expensive seasoning.”  I think that exposition should be avoided altogether on the basis that it deprives the reader of experiencing what is going on in real time.

She recommends checking for the use of -ly words (adverbs), and suggests that this is a hint that the wrong verb has been used.  I agree that the right verb, used alone, makes better reading than a weak verb and supporting adverb in the sense that it better expresses the author’s intent.  In my experience, though, it isn’t always possible to convey how the action feels, without an adverb – even with the help of a thesaurus.

Use of the explaining words and phrases: “because” or “in order to” should be avoided, Ms Quatrano suggests, because it is just another form of telling, rather than showing the reader.  It is OK to use them in dialogue.  Agreed.

She says: “Stay away from relative terms like big, small, fast, slow, pretty, ugly.  Show the reader what they need  to see through dialogue and scenes.  Concentrate on showing actions and reactions, not on explaining what’s going on.”  I would say: stay away from relative adjectives for a different reason: they are vague.  Readers find vagueness boring.  In my experience,  sometimes the use of an unconventional noun or adjective conveys exactly the picture I’m trying to paint.  How about: instead of saying ‘little girl’, we write ‘knee-high Goldilocks’?

She says: Avoid the emotion killers: am, is, are, was, were, be, been and being.  These slow down the emotional intensity.  This is true, but she doesn’t say why.  These are all forms of the verb ‘to be’, which is an intransitive verb, that is: a verb which does not need a direct object to complete its meaning.  Intransitive verbs do not convey action.  Readers like action, and emotion arises from action, not from ‘being’.

Coming back to Ms Quatrano’s other two choices: dialogue and narrative, I tend to use narrative sparingly and mostly to set the scene or to transition from one scene to the next.  I use dialogue to define characters, to tell the story and to suggest key messages to the reader.

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