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Chinchillax


Fixation on death aside, this is lovely —Soge, accidentally describing my entire life

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Mar
17th
2020

"Show, don't tell" brings the exact same emotional miscommunication we face in real life to our fiction · 6:17am Mar 17th, 2020

I recently finished Malcom Gladwell's latest book: Talking to Strangers. It's a good read, if bleak and unsettling. One chapter of the book that really got my brain going was on the ability of humanity to "read" the emotions of others. (I cannot find online anywhere the work cited for Chapter 6: "The Friends Fallacy"—my library audiobook version didn't have it—so I'm talking about this from my untrustworthy memory)

There's something basic about human emotions we're taught from a young age. You can look at a person's face, and understand what that person is feeling.

If they have on a smile, they are happy.
If they have angry eyebrows, they are angry.
If they are frowning, they are sad.

But the flaw of this whole system is the fact that it is taught. There are tribal cultures that aren't engrained in Western opinions on facial emotions that will look at someone with angry eyebrows and think they are conveying disgust. Or view a toothy grin as anger. It really just depends on the culture.

This means that the way we display emotions is NOT universal. In fact, people in general don't always display the same emotional reaction as what they are "expected" to.

(ASIDE: Gladwell didn't get into this, but I really do wonder if western media has brought on a slow sort of emotional linguicide, where more and more cultures view a smile as being happy because that is what they become used to.)

They ran an experiment taking pictures of people in haunted houses the moment things got particularly terrifying. Does everyone have a "scared" look on their face? Not exactly: some percentage have their eyes go wide, another percentage have their jaw drop, others might just have their eyebrows furrow, or look more 'angry' than scared, or some go completely vacant. When people feel a sudden emotion of fear, it's not like they choose what their face is going to look like—it just happens.

Let's take a much more difficult example: grief. Let's say someone close to someone just died. What is the emotion that is "supposed" to be on their face? A frown? Angry eyebrows? Weeping? A scrunched up wailing? Completely vacant? All of those could be it. People are different from each other, and the emotions come without even consciously doing it.

Naturally, all these different emotions and the body's response to these emotions cause a lot of problems. Just imagine these conflicts:

"You don't look 'sorry' enough," said the judge. Joe had resting b*tch face and didn't know how to convey remorse if his life depended on it. Which today it did.

Cynthia was ecstatic upon seeing the car in the driveway, but the frozen look on her face perturbed her mother. "It's your birthday, why don't you look happy?"

"Are you actually sad your father died?" Helen asked. The boy just kept staring at the screen, nonplussed.

There's... a LOT of room for miscommunication here. People are conveying the exact emotion their body has decided it wants to convey in that situation. What physically happens to a person't face or body language DOES NOT always equal the cultural expectation they are "supposed" to convey.

In fact, there's a magical funny world where people's body language DOES match perfectly with how they feel: acting.

An actor's job is to convey emotions. When the character is happy, they look the cultural expectation of happy. When a character is sad, they look the cultural expectation of sad. It takes a crazy amount of training and work to reach this level. But one mark of a good actor is when the audience can clearly tell the actor's emotions and understand them.

Actors are exaggerated in a way to properly show the exact feeling that they are "supposed" to have for the scene. Animation gets even more exaggerated. All of this is to serve the purpose of the story and telegraphing to the viewer exactly what is happening.

Actors and animators are wonderful at conveying the culturally expected emotion.

Normal people... fare pretty well too all things considered—it's just not exaggerated. Ordinary people are much more subtle and how they are supposed to look isn't exactly how they feel. People are much more complicated than that.

I remember as a child I was really bad at conveying emotions. I would laugh at inopportune times. No matter what I said it sounded like I was lying because I would glance sideways or not stare directly at the person. These are things I learned, subconsciously, over time how to get better at. I would say my years of pretending to be happy while wrestling with mental illness has made me a pretty decent actor all things considered.

---

The point I'm trying to reach here is that the stories we write also have their own "actor-like" quality to them. The characters emotions are exaggerated so that the reader understands how they are feeling.

Modern prose writing style requires the author to add just as much embellishment and exaggeration into their writing as much as any actor—or even animator—would. No, it's not realistic. But that is how we consume our media.

But how often does a person in real life really "furrow their eyebrows" in comparison to how often it happens in fiction?

What about "she bit her lip?" What does that even mean!? She's nervous? Perturbed? Confused?

She prodded the ground with her hoof.
Uhh... could that be boredom? Tired? Curiosity? I mean—I thought I knew when I read the line but now that I look at it I have no clue.

He scrunched up his muzzle.
Embarrassment? It's gotta be embarrassment, right? Or is it annoyance?
What emotions ARE these sentences trying to convey!?

This goes into the advice of "show, don't tell" for our characters emotions. And that piece of writing advice has always really annoyed me for reasons I haven't been unable to articulate until now: "Show, don't tell" brings the exact same emotional miscommunication we face in real life to our fiction.

Writers are in the unique position where we can straight up say what a character is feeling. We have a medium where this is possible! We can be in characters heads, we can be omniscient!

But no—that's "bad writing" because instead we can write out the expression that's on their face, or how their hand is twitching and that's what gives the reader enough information to interpret the emotion they are feeling.

And yeah... you can write that way. And unfortunately you probably should because your character is an exaggerated actor telegraphing emotions largely enough that the reader can understand. And the writing culture you are currently apart of demands it from you.


I hate it. I hate it all so much. Humans are so stupidly complicated, but you have to play by those cultural rules because otherwise you are "a bad writer" or "a terrible person" or "autistic." I'm in one of those moods right now where I feel the entire nature of existence is so messed up on a fundamental level I just—

D:<

*deep breaths*

---

Okay. Here's what I wish for, I want an emotions to physical expression dictionary.

I want to look up the word: Nervous. And see dozens upon dozens of example sentences on how nervousness can be conveyed in writing. It would be full of examples like: "She bit her lip." "His hand twitched involuntarily." "He blinked just a little too fast."

Does something like that even exist? Or do I have to make it?
I don't even think I could if I wanted to because I have no frickin' clue what "she bit her lip" even means and I'm just so angry that humans are so frickin' complicated and unless you bring that complicatedness into your writing, it's not going to be readable.

And even if I wanted to read stories that had sentences like: "Sam said angrily" scattered throughout, my subconscious would get annoyed at it and I'd want to stop reading it—even though philosophically I would prefer the radical candor of actually knowing how the characters feel.

The only proper conclusion I can give to this blog post is by telling you exactly how I feel right now. And it is the following emoji:
¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Comments ( 10 )

In some ways, society still suffers from treating many emotions as something to hide or be shameful about. I'm sure that also feeds into this problem.

"You don't look 'sorry' enough," said the judge.

The judge sooo wants to stick this guy into prison, but currently lacks something more defensible to say. So he throws unfalsifiable accusation that kinda sound legit in current cultural environment, which our guy would have great trouble directly countering (that's the power of unfalsifiable statements) and needs to cleverly redirect. The moral is: learn politic-speak, kids :rainbowlaugh:

I remember as a child I was really bad at conveying emotions. I would laugh at inopportune times. No matter what I said it sounded like I was lying because I would glance sideways or not stare directly at the person.

That sound more like about managing reactions from folks in your social circle than "conveying emotions". I guess, the moral is: learn po...

I would say my years of pretending to be happy while wrestling with mental illness has made me a pretty decent actor all things considered.

Oh, you already know that.

Writers are in the unique position where we can straight up say what a character is feeling. We have a medium where this is possible! We can be in characters heads, we can be omniscient!

Well, the issue is that words, that usually used for describing feelings or what's in characters heads, don't actually mean anything (or in best case don't incrementally mean anything). That's kinda why it sometimes said that it's "bad writing", although writing is diverse and there are good example of that (for their own specific reasons).

But no—that's "bad writing" because instead we can write out the expression that's on their face, or how their hand is twitching and that's what gives the reader enough information to interpret the emotion they are feeling.

That isn't super much better. These details are for other characters to notice and react, unless it's a mystery where clues are thrown around for reader to figure out what will happen next.

I want to look up the word: Nervous. And see dozens upon dozens of example sentences on how nervousness can be conveyed in writing. It would be full of examples like: "She bit her lip." "His hand twitched involuntarily." "He blinked just a little too fast."

I think the actual issue here may be in the fact itself of framing this problem as there's some big thing "nervousness" that should be somehow be "conveyed".

I interpret "she bit her lip" as a worried facial gesture; to me it expresses uncertainty and apprehension. It's something someone might do in lieu of taking action; they aren't sure how to proceed and worried that doing anything might have a negative effect. The lip bite is a self-comforting action that one can perform while holding a worried expression.

5222064
It's such an odd problem. We expect people to outwardly portray the right emotion at the exact right time. It feels like humans put way too much pressure on other humans for literally everything

5222106

"You don't look 'sorry' enough," said the judge.

The judge sooo wants to stick this guy into prison

It's by far the scariest aspect of emotional miscommunication. Talking to Strangers's thesis was all about how these kinds of problems screw people over in the criminal justice system.

Well, the issue is that words, that usually used for describing feelings or what's in characters heads, don't actually mean anything (or in best case don't incrementally mean anything). That's kinda why it sometimes said that it's "bad writing", although writing is diverse and there are good example of that (for their own specific reasons).

That's an interesting take on it.

These details are for other characters to notice and react, unless it's a mystery where clues are thrown around for reader to figure out what will happen next.

Yeah... this is really my dissatisfaction with life than it is with writing itself. Writing reflects life. As nice as it would be to know people's emotional states, at a certain point we would kind of sound robotic. Or like the Elcor race in the Mass Effect series. They will announce an emotion and then say what they want to say.
"With great disappointment: thank you for trying"
"Tired: It's been a long day"

Hmm... yeah... that ain't much better either.

Thanks for the long reply!

5222113
I have needed a definition like this for years now. Thanks so much for giving it to me!

5223556
I mean, that's my interpretation, so I could be wrong. :) I never really thought about how we "learn" what these authorial shortcuts mean, I just kind of picked them up over time. I do recall encountering things where I wasn't sure what it actually meant in a behavioral context, but I don't remember how I learned their meaning.

These two screenshots illustrate what I think the "biting your lip" gesture looks like visually, if it helps:

https://derpibooru.org/images/1815925 (Autumn Blaze)
https://derpibooru.org/images/1454092 (Sci-Twi)

5223554

It's by far the scariest aspect of emotional miscommunication.

It's an aspect of some guy with kinda similar hair style flipping judge the bird in a traffic jam few days ago, or breakfast being too long ago, or whatever. Is it possible to sensibly talk about fixing "emotional miscommunication" at all? "If only suspects in criminal system were more manipulative"?

They will announce an emotion and then say what they want to say.

They don't "announce an emotion", those phrases are to have comedic effect. In your first example former half completely defeats the point of latter (lie to make collocutor feel better), in second example it's a same thing said two times in a row.

Okay. Here's what I wish for, I want an emotions to physical expression dictionary.

Does something like that even exist? Or do I have to make it?

This might be what you're looking for:

[Emotion Thesaurus]

Disclaimer: Own it, only glanced through it.

But, from what I know: for each fo the 50-or-so emotions, they have a definition of the term, what it feels like, and how to express that through physical action. They also have an entry detailing related emotions, and how it develops/evolves over time. There's an entry for "Acceptance" within the free Amazon preview.

Hope that helps, at least a little!

5227675
IT'S REAL!!!! YEEEESSS!!!!

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