Thursday, October 28, 2010

"I Was So Embarrassed, I Could Just..."

Feelings are much like waves, we can't stop them from coming but we can choose which one to surf. --Jonatan Martensson
I was so embarrassed once...once? I've been embarrassed more times than I care to remember. There was the time in junior high when I was scheduled to give an oral report right after lunch but spilled juice on my skirt during that lunch. Oh, the dark blotch, the snickers, the finger pointing. Want the floor to open up and swallow you...?

And the time, many years later when I was a chaperone for a youth group on a trip to Washington D.C. and sported a brand-new camera. There I was, standing in awe in the middle of our nation's National Archives building, surrounded by twenty-some teenagers (for whom I was to be an example) and as many signs that practically shouted, NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY. And, with this being a new camera and all, I thought the flash was off when I aimed to take a picture...and of course it wasn't. I can still feel the breath of the guard who was there in a nanosecond, and hear his reprimand. The color in my face didn't come back until we were sitting in the dark of Ford's Theater several blocks away...

Then there was the time...oh, I think that's enough!

Embarrassment. An emotion of the third level according to, right under sadness and neglect. Robert Plutchik, Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions, named what he saw as eight basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. However, if you count through all the first, second, and third tiers, you come up with close to one hundred emotion variations.

Portraying a character's emotions following the cardinal rule, "show, don't tell," is one of a writer's greatest challenges. If you say, "She was embarrassed," you've told how she felt, but give readers no emotional anchor to hold on to that helps them care. But if, for example, you say, "She slipped, fell, and smacked her face hard against the dirty tile outside the chemistry lab just as her ex-boyfriend rounded the corner" (ahem, sad to say, another true story), you're more apt to catch their attention.

I was reminded of all this when I learned that the children's magazine Highlights for Children is sponsoring a contest, "Fiction Involving an Embarrassing Moment." All entries must be postmarked between January 1 and 31, 2011 (details here). I think I'll take a short detour from my WIP and play around with the idea for a couple of days. I need the exercise. Maybe with a little practice I won't fall on my face?

How are you doing in your attempts to show emotion, not tell, in your stories? Have you drawn inspiration from a real life moment? Maybe you could try your hand at the Highlights contest, too.


  1. I know how to show and not tell but sometimes as I'm writing, I slip into telling and have to catch those moments in the revisions.
    I hope you do well in the contest!

  2. I was thinking about the Highlights contest. Thanks for the reminder. :O)

  3. I try and show more than I tell but the problem with that is that... well it's HARD and sometiems showing takes up way more words than you really should spend on that one moment.

  4. Thanks for the Highlights link. I've a few memories that might work into something. Yes, some of these emotions are tough. I pay special attention to books I'm reading for this very thing.
    Happy weekend,

  5. I love the link to the list of emotions. I'm bookmarking it!


  6. Hi Kenda...I am trying hard on the show not tell aspect of my writing. Thanks for the Highlights link and for dropping by and leaving a comment.

  7. Kenda, sometimes I show when I need to tell. GROAN

    The contest sounds great. I am so WRAPPED up in my next book, but maybe I could at least think about this. Play around with an idea in my head. Thanks for the link. :)

  8. Oh, gosh, remembering embarrassing moments from the past make me wince like they happened yesterday. Thanks for the reminder about the Highlights contest.

  9. hello, this is another tip for me, since i'm currently writing a story. good good post.,