Shame is one of the most powerful and underused emotions in a fiction-writer’s toolbox. Shame is pervasive and common, it’s ugly and hard to capture well, but deep point of view is the perfect technique to use with this complex emotion. Readers cheer for characters who are relate-able, who stand up to bullies, who stay and fight when they don’t have to. They relate to characters who have flaws!
And shame is one emotion everyone studiously avoids, denies, and conceals and because of that can have some awful negative consequences like rage, anxiety, depression, emptiness, isolation, addiction, substance abuse, violence, bullying, suicide, eating disorders, etc.
Guilt says you did a bad thing. Shame says you’re a bad person.
This is an excerpt from a guest post – click here to read the whole post on Writers In The Storm.
How To Show And Not Tell Shame In Fiction
Brene Brown in her book Rising Strongdescribed shame as living with a rock on your chest. Shame feels like a crushing, inescapable weight on our chests, cutting off our air, knotting our guts, stealing our words, making us flushed. (The Emotion Thesaurus is a great resource.)
Whether your character starts off feeling shameful about something (past or present) and works to shake that off, or shame is something that they take on in the course of the story, the key to a shame emotion arc is what Brene Brown calls The Reckoning, The Rumble, and the Revolution. It looks a lot like the 3-act structure *smile*
In Rising Strong, Brown gives this example: “…Your face turns red and heat radiates from your chest when you learn that your boss gave the lead for a new project to your colleague.”
Here are two scenarios Brene poses to this emotional problem:
“My boss is an a—hole. Todd’s such a brownnoser. Who cares? This job sucks and this company is a joke.” This is the shame-train reaction—the knee-jerk, off-loading, emotional avoidance caused by shame. As long as your character stays here and never questions WHY they feel this angry, then your character is letting emotions they refuse to admit they feel to drive the shame-train.
“I’m so pissed about her giving the lead to Todd. I need to figure this out before I lose it with everyone on our team…” This curiosity begins the process below. There’s an inciting incident that causes the character to take a proactive step to get off the shame-train.
The 3 Act Structure For Writing Shame According To Brene Brown
The Reckoning: At some point in the story, your character decides to jump off the shame-train and gets curious. Why do I feel like this? Why am I reacting like this? Why do I think of x or y when this happens? Hopefully your character has a friend or ally with them. The Reckoning is about identifying and/or labelling the emotion or thinking that’s got them convinced they’re a bad person (put them on the floor of the arena).
The Reckoning is heart-breaking work because it’s one step forward and two steps back over and over. Their best thinking is what put that boulder on their chest (either as a reaction to something they did or is a survival mechanism to something done to them) to begin with and they’ve managed the rock by ignoring it was there altogether. Now that they acknowledge it’s there, life is going to get harder as they reckon with hard emotions they’ve trained themselves to numb or off-load onto others.
This kicks off The Rumble.
The Rumble:The Rumble is the shame-showdown. Now that your character acknowledges the thinking and emotions that have put them on the floor of the arena, now they’re going to THINK their way out from under the shame-boulder. But they’re acutely aware of those in the stands staring at them, at their repeated failure, their unworthiness.
The Rumble is about living with, allowing to well up, wrestling with the emotions they’ve avoided all this time. It means admitting they over-reacted. It’s about acknowledging emotions they might not understand or memories that seem unrelated that keep popping up. It’s doing the hard work of figuring out how they feel and WHY!
Now the character moves on to The Revolution.
The Revolution:Once the character has gotten the rock of shame off their chest, once they’ve rumbled with the emotions that put it there, now comes the revolution. They now must rebuild their self-esteem. This provides incredible character arc if you look for it. How does one let go of perfectionism? How does one learn to forgive themselves? What do they ask themselves as they stumble in The Rumble? That’s narrative gold, right there.
Questions To Ask Your Characters About Shame
What emotions does your character refuse to acknowledge they’re struggling with? Does the tomboy refuse to acknowledge the girly side that’s vulnerable? Does the warrior refuse to cry? WHY?
When something negative happens, we create the stories in our heads we expect to hear. We filter everything that’s said and done through how we believe we’re perceived even if there’s no evidence for that conclusion. How can a self-fulfilling prophecy of shame play into your story?
What thought does your character avoid having confirmed in any conflict or hurtful event?
What is your character’s go-to emotional substitution? Do they lash out in anger? Do they self-flagellate with destructive internal messages?