The Balancing Act

Congratulations to all you NaNoWriMo winners! I’d love to hear about what you accomplished. Please post.

And I need title help, so I’m coming once again to you guys, who have saved me in the past. April, please take note. This time it’s for my book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I don’t want to give much away, but I have to tell you a little. Cima is a girl in a family of wealthy Jews. Her grandfather, Joseph Corcia, is a philosopher, financier, and courtier to the monarchs and the nobility. He and she are very close, and he brings her with him when he travels, so she has a front-row seat on the growing antisemitism in Spain. Superstitions about Jews, the Inquisition, plague, attempts to convert her and her family all come into it–it was a terrible and exciting time. The reader meets King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, and their daughter the infanta, Princess Isabella. My title was Long-Ago Cima, which my editor dislikes. Suggestions are more than welcome–please.

On September 17, 2018, Christie V Powell wrote, Here’s a question: how do you balance “showing” with being too subtle? I always hear things like “don’t name emotions” and “trust that your readers will figure it out.” But then I get comments on my stories saying that I implied too much. For instance, I have a girl climbing a cliff, and feedback (from experienced writers) was that I only implied that she might fall instead of stating the danger. In another scene, the main character says something like “her sister was gone across the sea.” A beta-reader commented that she doesn’t know how my MC feels about this. I assumed that this was already a sad thought so I didn’t need to say so.

Anyway, I’m working with their advice, but I was curious what you do to balance showing (especially emotion) with being too subtle/unclear?

Quite a discussion ensued.

Poppie: Showing physical manifestations of emotion, such as shaking hands, clenched teeth, or changes in breathing are great ways to show how a character is feeling, rather than saying “she was angry” or “she felt sad.” You can ‘show’ in times of danger or intense emotion, but I think it’s okay to mix in some ‘telling’ as well.

Let’s try this with the girl climbing the cliff:

“Her palms were slippery with sweat. Fear surged through her as she realized that if they got too sweaty she wouldn’t be able to keep her grip on the rocks. She would fall into the swirling rapids below…’no! Don’t think about that! Keep going… don’t look down… don’t panic…” she urged herself.

Kit Kat Kitty: With the “her sister was gone across the sea” example, I think it might be helpful to write in what she does when she thinks about it. If she looks down at her hands, readers might realize she’s sad. You could also do something along the lines of “Her sister was gone across the sea. I worried if she would ever come back. What if she didn’t?”

If a character is thinking, they’re likely to think about things they wouldn’t say, which can help with their inner thoughts and how they really feel. She likely won’t think “I’m sad,” but may think about sad things.

Raina: I saw an advice post on Pinterest that says “show emotion, tell feeling,,” with some more elaboration. (Here’s the post: While I think that post is a little fuzzy about the difference between feelings and emotions, my interpretation is this: show the emotions/feelings that are significant to your character and unique to them, and tell the “basic” emotions/feelings that either aren’t extremely significant, or are so common that everybody can automatically relate without waxing poetic about it. For example, when it comes to climbing a cliff and potentially falling to their deaths, most people would probably be terrified. You can tell instead of show because given the situation, your reader can probably guess what she feels, and probably feels the same themselves. Correct me if I’m wrong, I’m guessing that her fear and/or the danger of falling doesn’t have lasting consequences on the plot or character development of the overarching story; it’s just there to provide tension for this specific scene. So while it’s always good to let readers know what’s going on with your character, this isn’t particularly “significant.”

A sister going across the sea, however, is probably an experience/emotion that’s unique to your character, and thus it might be worth it to show a little more of what she’s feeling instead of letting the reader figure it out. Because, though I can imagine a variety of emotions she might be feeling, I’ve never actually experienced anything like that, so the emotions I’m imagining might not be correct. Also, this sounds like pretty deep character development that will impact the whole story, so it’s worth it to spend some extra time showing her emotions in detail.

But in addition to finding the balance between subtlety and clarity, I think you also have to prioritize which one you value in any particular situation. For information that’s integral for the plot, I would definitely go with clarity. But if it’s not particularly pertinent information, and the reader won’t be too confused if they don’t get it, you can try to be more subtle and artistic in your descriptions. I disliked Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” because I couldn’t figure out what was going on (though my English teacher thought it was a brilliant piece of “iceberg” writing, so to each their own), whereas I absolutely adore Terry Pratchett’s many subtle but brilliant phrases in his books because they’re fairly low-stakes; if I figure it out, I’m delighted by his wit, but if I can’t, I’m not completely confused either, since they’re mainly just jokes or description, not important information.

Christie V Powell: Yeah, thank you. Here, though, my character isn’t terrified. She is (over)confident in her climbing abilities, and she’s doing it because she enjoys it. So I have to show that this is dangerous, but I have to stay inside her head and she’s not thinking about the danger. She’s feeling happy that she gets to do what she wants, and triumphant that she convinced her village to let her do it.

Sara: Maybe have her overconfidence show us that there’s real danger? She doesn’t have to realize it herself, but maybe when she’s thinking about how much fun this is, a lapse of focus for just a second sends a rock tumbling off the cliff. If there are those clues, we’ll understand that there is danger and that she’s oblivious to it.

I was in a children’s book writing workshop when I wrote Ella Enchanted, and the teacher read to the class the chapter in which Ella’s mother dies. The criticism I got was, Is she sad? And I thought, Duh. Her mother just died. Of course she’s sad! But then I had to show it, which I did, mostly through thoughts, drawing on memories of my thoughts and feelings when my mother had died a few years earlier.

My duh response wasn’t correct anyway. Years ago, I read a newspaper article in which the writer visited a nursing home and met an elderly woman whose husband had recently died. The writer expressed condolences, but the widow shook her head and said something like, “It’s wonderful!” Turns out the husband had been abusive and controlling. (If I remember right, her background had been traditional, and divorce hadn’t seemed to be an option.) The writer realized she had been making an unwarranted assumption–as we have to as well.

In the cliff climbing example, we can work the feeling in with showing, as Sara suggests. Say Christie V Powell’s character is named Mai. Someone else can say, “I’m terrified just thinking of climbing that. Aren’t you scared?” Mai can say, “Not me.” And can go on to thoughts that clue the reader in to her overconfidence. Maybe she’s never taken on a climb this challenging, but she knows she can do it; another, more experienced climber was injured in the attempt, but she still knows she can do it; snow fell overnight, but she’s climbed in snow before. We can use dialogue again. A dissenting voice from the village can say something like, “You’re a fool to climb that cliff, and they’re fools to let you.” This can trigger a torrent of more defensive thoughts in Mai.

We always have to balance being too subtle and hitting the reader over the head. My example above may fall into the second category, and the balance isn’t always easy to find. We should trust the reader’s intelligence on one hand, and on the other, everything we’re doing is lost if the reader doesn’t get it. Sometimes we find the sweet spot only in revision, when we can regard our pages from the distance a break provides.

Of course I don’t know what happens to the Mai character in Christie V Powell’s story, and I don’t know if the beta readers saw only the part before the climb or the climb itself as well. Sometimes with our subtle showing we ring a little bell, which the reader may not notice immediately. If Mai gets into trouble during the climb, then the reader will remember the subtle clues and appreciate them. If the beta readers haven’t read far enough, they won’t recognize our clever planting.

I’m with Poppie that some telling is fine. Mai can think back to her first climb and how scared she was (if she was) and contrast that with the present. She can notice how steady her hands are, how regular her heartbeat–and tell the reader that she feels confident of success.

As always, the elements we have to work with for showing are thoughts, physical manifestations of emotions, dialogue, and, in this case, setting.

One more thing: Not every criticism is accurate. Beta readers can be wrong–although if we hear the same concern from more than one person, we have to take it seriously.

Here are three prompts:

∙ A hurricane is predicted for Any Town on the coast of Any Sea. Dick and Jane and their little dog Spot live with their granddaughter Dorothy in a split-level ranch house a block from the beach. Any Town residents are advised to evacuate. Each of the human characters as well as Spot reacts differently to the threat. From the POV of an omniscient narrator, show how the four respond. With a minimum of telling, reveal their inner lives when faced with this threat. Write a scene or the whole story of the lead-up to the hurricane and the storm itself for this family.

∙ Some people (usually not writers, just saying) and characters are oblivious to their inner lives. Six of the seven dwarfs are delighted to have Snow White living with them. Jobin, one of the dwarfs, feels serious internal pressure to be happy, too. He doesn’t know either how great his need to conform is or how much he resents Snow White’s invasion of their happy home. It all comes to a head on the third day of her stay. Write what happens, showing both what he actually feels and what he thinks he feels–and how he acts.

∙ You may have to look at your Shakespeare for this. Your main character, Roger, is playing Romeo, and your other main character, June, is playing Juliet. Roger, in real life, is falling for June, while she can barely tolerate him. Write their rehearsal of a love scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I have been reading your blog for a while, subscribed, but never commented. I was thinking about names for your book and the name “Cima Protected” or something of the like kept popping into my brain. I’ll comment again.

  2. I just found out that the first place to accept one of my stories is celebrating their 20th anniversary. The First Line’s premise is that all the stories in an issue start with the same line, and for the anniversary they’re bringing back all the previous lines. Gail, if you don’t mind my posting a link, I thought people here might have fun with it.

    (My first story was in Volume 1, Issue 2. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years already!)

  3. Thanks for answering my question. The climbing the cliff is just an opening for a bigger scene–she encounters a griffin, rushes to get away from it, slips and falls, it deflects her fall so she falls in water instead of on rocks… anyway, the story goes on.

  4. This was great! I love showing instead of telling, whereas my friend loves telling and I didn’t realize you could show too much.

  5. Hello!

    This is a topic I have been having trouble with while editing, and everyone’s advice is very useful.

    Title ideas: The Philosopher’s Daughter (or something in that vein, which could imply Cima’s closeness with her father and the importance of his profession/s on her life and the story)

    For general title advice- is there an important symbol in the book? One that is perhaps a metaphor for Judaism? The title could be something like “Ash and [Symbol name]s.” Also, is there an important line in the book that could reflect the theme of the story? Part of an important line could make an excellent title.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Thank you! Yes. There is an amulet with four Hebrew letters that mean God, that’s intended to distract the evil eye.

  6. Maybe “Expelled, but not defeated.” That might be to long, though. You could do “Cima expelled”, or “Strangers” all by itself.

  7. Thanks for this! I suffer with being too on-the-nose myself. I feel like I just say they ‘walked’ or whatever without using any nicer words to make good prose.

    Which reminds me, any tips for good prose?

      • I guess I just feel like my prose isn’t as pretty or nice as some other people’s prose. E.g., their prose is “The truck leaped down the dirt road, leaving a cock’s tail of dust blooming behind it” or something like that and mine is more like “The truck drove down the road, and smoke came up behind it”. A minor exaggeration, but I hope you see what I mean. Is this a matter of editing, and if so, what’s the best thing to do to fix it?

        • I wish I knew where to find a movie that I watched in school. Basically, it showed a student writing about a field trip to the airport. They’d written “The engines made a loud sound. The jet went down the runway very fast, and took off.”
          It highlighted “made a loud sound” Then it superimposed various images over the moving jet: a lion roaring, people screaming, etc. Then it did the same for “went very fast”: a gunshot, a sprinter, etc.
          Then they chose the words that seemed to fit the best, and ended up with “Engines shrieking, the jet raced down the runway and took off.”
          I think it helps. I still remember it after 35-40 years, anyway. 🙂

  8. I’ve not commented before, but it’s so fun to try to come up with a title for someone else’s book instead of pulling my hair out over my own. Here are my thoughts based upon your description:

    The Terrible and Exciting Time
    Cima in a Terrible Time
    Cima’s Front-Row Seat

    Whatever the title, can’t wait to read it!

  9. Hey, this site is really cool. I’ve read both of your writing books: Writing Magic and Writer to Writer. They are both really awesome, and are like my writing bibles.
    About your book title… I was thinking When I Traveled With Grandfather or My Travels With Grandfather.

  10. Emmeline Whitby says:

    Hi! I don’t have any additional suggestions about the title, but I like “Cima in Shadow”.

    I also have a question. My MC’s brother has recently been cursed. Her dad is also cursed, and the only way to break both curses is to defeat an evil queen and release another queen who was kidnapped. I don’t want my MC’s only motivation for defeating this queen to be saving her family. The queen is a tyrant among other things. How do I show her other motivations without making her seem unsympathetic? Please help and thanks for any suggestions!

    • Maybe introduce the conflict of the queen as one of the earliest ones, possibly even before the dad becomes cursed (but he might have been cursed from the beginning, so yeah). Make the queen’s tyranny affect the MC closely, not just something she heard about and wanted to stop just because. If your MC has two personal motivations for wanting to stop this queen, I think it would make her feel sympathetic.

  11. Cool, you have a blogspot blog? I used to have one. I was searching on Amazon for writing books and I think I need help on two things: How to make an outline for a novel and second, how to describe realistic characters in stories. Help!

    • Well, there’s lots of websites that have help on outlines, and I’m still figuring out how to make a cohesive one, so I can’t really help with that. But to make realistic characters, there’s a bunch of things you can try to do. You know those character trait fill in sheets that are kind of generic? I like making my own version of those, but instead of basic things, I used funny or weird things I’ve done and set to find out which of my characters would do things like that. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact way to make realistic characters, because every character is different, so you just have to flesh them out as much as you want to and focus on the parts that make them unique. Use all of your random ideas. That’s kind of vague advice, but oh well. Hope this helped!

      • Oh thank you so much for your help! To make realistic characters, I think I got what you mean. Yay!! Yes, the outlining part is hard. I hope we both find a method that will help us. Thank you again. ❤️

  12. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Does anyone have any advice on how to deal with the death of a character? I know it sounds strange, but what if you really cared about them, and they died in the story? How can you bring yourself to write there death/continue to write the story?

    • I skipped the death scenes for one character for months. I wrote around it until I couldn’t anymore. Then I just had to grit my teeth and do it.

      Sometimes it helps to imagine my characters as actors who really WANT to play these cool dramatic scenes.

    • I had to write a death scene. To do it, you need to cry. It is hard to write it, but it helps to remember a time in your life when you lost something important to you…

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