Feel, Don’t Tell

One of my longest-running colleagues, Shakespeare, has been doing a run of writing exercises recently. It’s been a while since I did write on demand on a regular basis, but I’ve found doing these things to be a very useful skill, and this one in particular was very important to a newbie writer.

The object of the game was to write a scene that got across an emotion, without actually spelling out that emotion, or even going into the characters’ heads at all. Just a nice little run of third person objective. I actually find this difficult; most of my writing is as much inside the head as outside. It made it quite the challenge.

The end result was too long for a comment, but perfect for a post.

Three papers lie on the desk in front of Amaya and Kiara, illuminated by the candle a short distance away. The center piece is a garden of illegible symbols in vertical columns. On the left, another bears short scrawls in two different sets of handwriting, festooned all over the page with neither rhyme nor reason to the arrangement. And the right has a number of letters and clusters of letters, their spacing irregular but the rows meticulously straight.

There isn’t a word, just the constant rhythmic tap of the butt of Kiara’s pen on the desk. Tap… tap… tap… the timing, the spacing, is perfect. Constant. Almost a heartbeat. Now and then she scrawls a few symbols on the left hand sheet. Looks at them. Looks at the right hand sheet. Crosses them out. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Three times this process is repeated, the tapping increasing in tempo and volume with each repetition. And through all this Amaya sits still, watching the pen, watching the letters.

Then Kiara sucks in her breath and shoves herself, chair and all, away from the desk. She stands, looks down at the three papers. Flicks a drop of ink off of her pen into the center of the mass of scrawls and strikeouts, then sets it down in front of her, hard enough that the top of the desk vibrates and the flame of the candle sways.

Amaya says nothing, but places her right hand on Kiara’s wrist and shakes her head, then picks up the scrawled paper with her other hand and blows on it. Five seconds—enough time for the ink to dry. Then she turns it over and makes a few strokes with her own pen on the paper’s clean back. One letter. And one symbol.

Kiara looks at them. At the original note. Back at the gap. Then she dives back into her chair, scoops up the pen and begins to write again. A few letter-symbol pairs, and then she looks at Amaya, who crosses out one and replaces it with another. Then a few more. And soon they’re trading them back and forth, filling in the gaps in the third sheet, scrawling notes in dovetailing patterns, occasionally crossing out or modifying each other’s notes.

Half an hour later, when the candle is close to burning out, they finish. Kiara fills in the last few blanks on the right hand paper and sets down the pen, then looks up to Amaya again. The older woman nods. “Well done.”

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