Time heals all wounds so the saying goes. Can’t say whether that’s a universal truth or not, but the passage of time does affect how we think about, talk about, and express emotions. When writing in Deep POV, writers are told not to name emotions:
She ran angrily.
He anxiously wrung his hands.
Now, naming emotions is usually considered telling and the preference is to show. Show Don’t Tell. However, the passage of time is one of the exceptions to the show don’t tell rule. When writing in Deep POV especially, it’s important to capture emotions authentically and avoid author intrusion. To illustrate what I mean, let’s create a fictional scene and work through it together.
Heat of the Moment – Primary Emotions
Sophie has a beloved pet, a cat named Fluffy. Fluffy is not the smartest cat on the planet, she likes to escape whenever possible and run around the neighborhood chasing birds. Sophie comes home late from work with her arms full of groceries and sneaky Fluffy darts out the door between Sophie’s feet.
Sophie dumps the groceries on the kitchen floor and runs outside calling for Fluffy. Car tires squeal on the street. Sophie looks up just in time to see poor Fluffy’s sudden and swift demise.
Primary emotions rush to the fore. Sophie is full of fear. She’s hoping against all rational hope that Fluffy is just a little bruised but fine. The car drives away and Fluffy doesn’t move, not even a tail twitch. In addition to the fear, now Sophie is swamped with sadness. Surprise and/or shock is now rushing through her. All these primary emotions are pulsing through her.
When something happens that causes a flood of primary emotions (an argument, missing a bus – it doesn’t have to be anything tragic), it’s almost impossible to identify the individual emotions being experienced. Depending on how traumatic the event was, it could be years before an individual can identify the primary emotions, maybe never.
In that moment, Sophie won’t be able to identify the various emotions she’s feeling because they’re all happening simultaneously and subconsciously. She’s overwhelmed. People who are overwhelmed often repeat the same phrase over and over–a chant of sorts. In fiction, a reader doesn’t want to read an entire page of “Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Fluffy!” That would get boring, so we compress this so it’s understood what’s going on but readers are spared the blow by blow word count.
Other Characters Can Observe The Primary Emotions
Sophie’s neighbor steps out of his garage with a shovel and without a word stands beside Sophie in the street staring down at Fluffy. It’s clear that Fluffy’s nine lives are up. He pulls out a rag from his pocket, covers up the corpse, and carefully scoops Fluffy up on the shovel. Sophie leads her neighbor to the backyard, removes Fluffy’s collar, and they bury Fluffy.
Sophie is crying. She’s probably shaking. She’s clutching the cat collar with its little bell to her chest. Her neighbor is not an idiot. He can see she’s visibly shaken, sad, grieving, shocked, etc. He isn’t the one flooded with those primary emotions. He may feel bad for Sophie, maybe he liked Fluffy. He might label her sadness or shock for her based on what he sees/observes or judges from what she says, but Sophie won’t be able to at this point so soon after the event.
Now the secondary emotions are going to kick in. Sophie needs to DO something with all the primary emotions flooding her system and mind. She could become angry. “Stupid cat, what were you thinking? I’ve told you not to run outside.” She might blame herself. “It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t have tried to carry all those groceries in without locking Fluffy in my bedroom first.” She could jump to shame. “I’m a horrible cat mom. I’m a horrible person to let this happen.”
Again, Sophie’s neighbor might comment on what he’s observing. “Don’t blame yourself. It happens.” He might react to her anger. “What idiot drives that fast on a residential street?” Sophie won’t even be able to label her shame or anger, though she might be aware that her reaction is out of proportion or pointed at the wrong person.
Two Weeks After Fluffy’s Death
Two weeks after Fluffy’s death, Sophie sees her neighbor as she’s headed out to work. They might nod or smile. A shared memory of the last time they’d seen each other. Now that a bit of time has passed, Sophie has been able to process a little of how she felt about the whole incident. She might comment that she misses Fluffy, or isn’t ready for a new pet yet. Maybe she’s still angry and makes a comment about the driver. Maybe she takes a moment to thank the neighbor for his compassion. The emotions are still pretty fresh. What she will be able to do is label the secondary emotion, but how free does she feel to disclose that? Shame is an emotion kept very private for instance.
Six Months After Fluffy’s Death
Six months have gone by since Fluffy’s death. Sophie is on the phone with her mother. She tells her mother how sad she was, how lonely she is with Fluffy gone. She might explain how lost and overwhelmed she felt, how surprised and sudden the whole thing was. She’s had time to process and articulate how she feels. She’s talking with someone she feels close to and feels safe disclosing her emotions to.
Sophie can label emotions once time has gone by, but not in the moment. Why?
That’s because labeling an emotion and feeling it happens in two different parts of our brains. To engage the other side of the brain (the part that analyzes and makes sense of things), we’ll need to label the emotion or verbalize how we feel. This is generally what happens in counseling. A counselor listens and is able to identify and label things for us, gives us tools to become more self-aware of what we’re feeling. Then we can analyze and learn from right and wrong thinking and emotions.
If your character has a parent or some other influential person who is self-aware, they may have been taught the tools to label emotions faster. When my son was young, maybe four or five, he would play a video game until he got so frustrated that he would jump up from the couch and throw the controller across the room. I sat him down. What’s wrong? He shrugged and slouched on the stool. He didn’t know. He was mad, that’s all he knew.
I told him it wasn’t wrong to be mad, but it wasn’t OK to throw things. What made him mad? We dug down into how he was feeling and I was able to label for him that he was actually frustrated (the primary emotion). I told him that he needed to recognize when he was getting frustrated and walk away before he got mad and started throwing things.
The next week, he stomped up the stairs from the basement where the TV was and threw himself on the carpet in the front room. What’s wrong?
Win for mom (a mom who’s had a lot of personal counseling). But, you see how that self-awareness has to be learned? It’s not automatic. Having enough self-awareness in the moment is what allows us to get off the emotional crazy train before secondary emotions get out of hand.
So when you’re tempted to name an emotion in your fiction, ask yourself these questions first before breaking the show don’t tell rule:
- How much time has passed? Has something just happened, has it been a week or years? The more time that has passed, the more a character will be able to articulate the feelings from a past event.
- How familiar is the character with the person they’re talking to? Relational closeness will facilitate the expression of intense or personal emotions.
- How socially acceptable are the emotions they feel? If someone is murdered, it would be socially unacceptable to celebrate even if that’s how the character really feels because the victim was abusive or violent, for instance. Those might be emotions a character keeps to themselves.
- How self-aware is the character to their own emotions? Unless you’ve created a reason within the story to explain the character’s exceptional self-awareness (like they’ve been to counseling, they’re older, etc), most people aren’t able to articulate the primary emotions they felt, or at least, all of the primary emotions they felt. It could be years before they’re able to say, “Yeah, I grieved for a long time.” They might articulate the secondary emotions sooner (like anger or anxiety) because of what others have observed or because of the consequences of their behavior.
- How motivated is your character to change and grow as a person? If this character is someone really focused on personal growth, or becoming a better person, self-awareness might be a trait they actively cultivate and seek resources to more fully develop either with books, mentors, classes, etc.
Do you agree? Share about a scene from your WIP where your character is able to label their emotions authentically.