Show, Don’t Tell — Conveying Emotion

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We’ve been asked here at MW to share our tips on how we convey emotion with telling the reader what the character is feeling in the scene.
Examples of telling:
She was sad.
Her heart broke at his words.
His depression worsened.
John’s rage increased.

The way a lot of new writers (and published writers who get lazy) handle emotion is with crutches. I’ll often (real often) read:
She chewed her lips.
He shuffled his feet.
He rocked back and forth from foot to foot.
He sighed.
These are crutches covered in previous posts, and so I won’t go into them, but I want to show that there are other ways to show emotion if we just take the time to create them. Maybe not on the first draft. “She was sad,” is fine upon first writing, but when we rewrite, we have to make the character’s emotional journey an integral part of the scene. And while there is nothing wrong with a character shifting from foot to foot, when it appears more than a few times and, worse, with more than one character, it becomes a crutch used show uncertainty.

 In the scene below, we start in the middle, having already established that the MC is weak and has been dependent on a husband for all of her life. Macon is her cousin and lawyer. 

Bad Scene with too much telling:

I was nervous as I switched on the lights. I opened the blinds, exposing the havoc and disorder of the office. Macon stopped, staring at the mess, and he shifted from foot to foot as his eyes followed me. I gestured to the room and shrugged, my grief heavy on my shoulders. “Jack’s office.” File drawers were hanging open, papers were scattered on the tables, the floor, the desk tops. Fingerprints marred the dusty surfaces. Only a few were mine. “It wasn’t this way the other day. I suppose Jas might have been in here, but I can’t imagine her leaving it like this. My daughter is neatness personified.” My hands were shaking and I squeezed them with a wringing motion.

“You didn’t call the police,” Macon said, starting to get angry.

“No. And neither will you.” My voice sounded breathy and soft, and held no determination. “Nothing’s missing. Not the TV, not the guns, not the computers. And according to Jack, there’s no way to get in the safe.” My voice sounded better, but still not firm and in control. “I have no intention of telling the local sheriff’s office about Jack’s financial problems. Or … or this.”

I explained about the threatening letter I had destroyed. About the phone calls from the unknown man calling himself Bill, saved on digital memory chips in the drawer beneath the answering machine. And I pointed to the letter Macon still held. As I spoke, Macon watched me, looking obstinate. I took a deep breath, proud that I was beginning to sound forceful. Hoping it would be enough. My hands were still wringing each other, but at least they were no longer shaking. “You’re going to need some help. I gave Esther two months off with pay, but she says she’s just sitting around getting fat and annoying Sherman—that’s her husband; he’s retired.” I sighed and got back on track. “She’ll be here at 8:30 and if you need anything Esther can help you. She’s been with Jack for years.” That stopped me, fear and sadness swallowing me whole.

Jack was dead. And all his problems were now mine.

Better scene.

Switching on lights as I went, I opened the blinds, exposing the havoc and disorder of the office. Macon stopped, staring at the mess, the paper in his hand forgotten. I gestured to the room and tried for another smile. “Jack’s office.” File drawers were hanging open, papers were scattered on the tables, the floor, the desk tops. Fingerprints marred the dusty surfaces. Only a few were mine. “It wasn’t this way the other day. I suppose Jas might have been in here, but I can’t imagine her leaving it like this. My daughter is neatness personified.” I laced my fingers together and squeezed to stop their shaking.

“You didn’t call the police,” Macon said, not making it a question.

“No. And neither will you.” My voice missed the strong, determined tone I’d intended by a mile, sounding breathy and far too soft. “Nothing’s missing. Not the TV, not the guns, not the computers. And according to Jack, there’s no way to get in the safe.” My voice sounded better, but still not firm and in control. I needed to work on that. “I have no intention of telling the local sheriff’s office about Jack’s financial problems. Or … or this.”

I explained about the threatening letter I had destroyed. About the phone calls from the unknown man calling himself Bill, saved on digital memory chips in the drawer beneath the answering machine. And I pointed to the letter Macon still held. As I spoke, Macon watched me, his lips tight. I knew my lawyer was about to give advice I didn’t want to hear. I took a deep breath, proud that I was beginning to sound forceful. Hoping it would be enough. My hands were white where I had squeezed the blood out of the flesh, but at least they were no longer shaking. “You’re going to need some help. I gave Esther two months off with pay, but she says she’s just sitting around getting fat and annoying Sherman—that’s her husband; he’s retired.” I closed my lips to stop my babbling and got back on track. “She’ll be here at 8:30 and if you need anything Esther can help you. She’s been with Jack for years.”

That stopped me. Jack was dead. And all his problems were now mine.

Now let’s break it down and see how it was done without telling the reader what the character was feeling.

Switching on lights as I went, I opened the blinds, exposing the havoc and disorder of the office. Macon stopped, staring at the mess, the paper in his hand forgotten. (I don’t have to tell the reader what either of them is feeling because I am using what some writers call *stage direction* and some call *body mechanics* {and there re other terms too} to show the emotion.) I gestured to the room and tried for another smile. (When a character can not display one emotion—here, smiling—then the reader understands that the opposite emotion is being felt.) “Jack’s office.” File drawers were hanging open, papers were scattered on the tables, the floor, the desk tops. Fingerprints marred the dusty surfaces. Only a few were mine. “It wasn’t this way the other day. I suppose Jas might have been in here, but I can’t imagine her leaving it like this. My daughter is neatness personified.” I laced my fingers together and squeezed to stop their shaking. (Wringing hands expressed another way, a way that gives the common gesture an indication of strength in the later paragraph. It is also wringing with a purpose, indicating that the character wants to display strength and shaking hands isn’t helping. I’ve also used things like, “He tucked his hands in his pockets,” or “She braced herself on the desk, flattening her hands to hide their shaking.” Different stage direction each time to show a character hiding emotion.)

“You didn’t call the police,” Macon said, not making it a question. (Indicates the two characters know one another well. Indicates emotion held in check.)

“No. And neither will you.” My voice missed the strong, determined tone I’d intended by a mile, sounding breathy and far too soft. (The character is analyzing her own body mechanics and trying to change them. That attempt at change reflects what she is feeling without me having to say what those emotions are.)  “Nothing’s missing. Not the TV, not the guns, not the computers. And according to Jack, there’s no way to get in the safe.” My voice sounded better, but still not firm and in control. I needed to work on that. (Indicates my character is accepting her changed role in life. She is now playing a part, even to herself, but also that she is starting to grow and develop as a character.) “I have no intention of telling the local sheriff’s office about Jack’s financial problems. Or … or this.”

I explained about the threatening letter I had destroyed. About the phone calls from the unknown man calling himself Bill, saved on digital memory chips in the drawer beneath the answering machine. And I pointed to the letter Macon still held. As I spoke, Macon watched me, his lips tight. I knew my lawyer was about to give advice I didn’t want to hear. (I used the word obstinate in the first version. Here I show it.) I took a deep breath, proud that I was beginning to sound forceful. Hoping it would be enough. My hands were white where I had squeezed the blood out of the flesh, but at least they were no longer shaking. (She has analyzed the situation and her body language and changed it, accepting that she isn’t perfect yet, but she can grow into a role that life has forced to her play. Now she is the business woman, making decision, as evidenced by the next sentence.) “You’re going to need some help. I gave Esther two months off with pay, but she says she’s just sitting around getting fat and annoying Sherman—that’s her husband; he’s retired.” I closed my lips to stop my babbling and got back on track. “She’ll be here at 8:30 and if you need anything Esther can help you. She’s been with Jack for years.” (She has been sad. I made that clear in previous scenes. She is grieving. But now she is coming out of it. I don’t have to keep on and on with the sadness.)

That stopped me. Jack was dead. And all his problems were now mine.

There are hundreds (thousands?) of ways to show emotion. When you read your work as part of your editing process, look for words that tell emotion and change them out with stage direction. It doesn’t mean that when you read the same scene months or years later you will still think it great, after all, our work and our writing is growing. But it does mean that you have added a new device to your writer’s tool box. There are a dozen different ways I might have conveyed emotion here and made the scene stronger, but that’s for another day.

Oh! And if you haven’t been by, the Magical Words beta-reader writing forum and critique group MagicalWordsBeta you are missing something great! The site is up and running with 15 members, the rules being firmed up (with a lot of latitude) and three great things are happening already:
1. Published writers are speaking up (waves to L. Jagi Lamplighter and others) and
2. Files to be critiqued have already been uploaded and
3. Some critiques have already been posted. These people work fast!

Faith
FaithHunter.Net
GwenHunter.Com

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32 comments to Show, Don’t Tell — Conveying Emotion

  • Brilliant post, Faith. Nothing is more effective than a side-by-side comparison of what works (and why), contrasted with what does not. Thanks!

  • Wonderful stuff, Faith. You excel at these example driven posts — I wish I could do this as well. I love to use gesture and action as indicators of emotion, but as you say, there are gestures I repeat too often, so that start to become crutches, things I put in when I can’t think (or don’t take the time to think) of something else to fill the space.

  • Thanks Edmund. That is high praise indeed, coming from an editor!

    David, I is real good at writin’ real bad! :)
    You do the *physical action as emotion* device beautifully, and then on top of that, you add in atmospheric details that bring the emotion to a high pitch. I still remember the opening scene you let me read before it was published. (Brain not recalling name of book. That file is temporarily closed.) The man hurrying through the dark town, everyone asleep. The tension and the character’s emotions were palpable. Arrrg! Cannot remember name of book! You should post that opening here as an example of how to do it right!

  • Actually, the book is called THIEFTAKER, and the scene you read has been changed substantially, for the better, I believe. But thank you.

  • (slaps own head)
    Well, then, you should do several weeks posts on it when it comes out. It was a remarkable opening.

  • Bill Hause

    Faith, this was awesome. I know this is something I need to work on. I found myself not wanting this post to end, but hoping for more examples with commentary.
    Are the strategies the same if you are using 1st vs 3rd limited POV?
    Would you consider inner monologue a crutch for telling?
    I was trying to think of other ways to show and not tell and I came up with dialogue and sometimes setting.
    Any other common ways?
    Thanks for the post, when I go back and look at my stuff, I will keep this in mind.

  • Another winner, Faith. And timely, too. I just finished half my days writing, read this post, and realized I’d totally told and did not show an important section. Sometimes the writing mind goes on autopilot. I almost scrapped today’s work and restart when a little voice reminded me this is just the first draft, and I can fix this stuff in revision. Make a note, move on. Thanks as always.

  • Great stuff, Faith. You nail the importance of keeping each moment specific rather than generalized (a wonderful note for actors and writers alike!).

  • Mikaela

    That was another great post, Faith. I am trying to remove the telling, and replace it with showing, but it is hard to catch all of it. Still, I am getting better at it. I hope so at least! :)

  • Thanks for this, Faith! I love these kind of posts because I can see the difference, and that helps me apply it to my own work. I’m getting better at spotting the telling not showing when I edit, but I still struggle with my own work. Probably because reading our own stuff is harderst!

  • Bill, you got it perfectly. While some inner monologue works, and is in fact necessary to the voice and tone of the story, too much becomes a crutch. In fact anything done to excess becomes a crutch.

    Yes, limited third POV works just the same.
    Emotion can be demonstrated with
    physical stage direction,
    dialogue,
    setting,
    things happening in the same scene but which are not actually a part of the main action, (I once read a book that took place during the Spanish Inquisition, and in the background of one dialogue scene a woman was being tortured.
    Horrid. And effective.)
    inner monologue or thoughts of the character,
    description of the character via narrative,
    and my personal favorite, dialogue at cross purposes (where two characters are discussing two different things and neither one fully realizes that).

    A good writer never uses just one device at a time, or one part of a scene for only one purpose. A good writer blends them to create a total that is much more than the sum of the parts.

  • Thanks, Stuart. I am very lazy writer. My first drafts are … not my best (she said with great restraint). I always want to scrap stuff, so I know what you mean!

    AJ, I have worked with (and been in a critique group with) professional playwrights and screenwriters. Listening to them critique my work has made me a better writer, despite the fact I didn’t always understand. One playwright pal used to say, “I have to get the feet right. Then I know what they are thinking and feeling.”

    Whooaaayyy…??? Huh?

  • Mikaela, it is an easy trap to fall into. I’ve been writing professionaly for more than 20 years, and I still catch myself telling. Because it is so much EASIER!!!!!

    Pea-Emily, that is why we need beta readers, people who know our work and can critique well. (She said, again plugging the MagicalWordsBetas on Yahoo.)

  • Faith> Exactly! And I’ve already done a critique and will do more and gotten good critiques from the MWBetas. (Just to add another plug for it…)

  • Tom Berrisford

    Faith, thanks so much for this post. It is truly eye-opening to see the reasons for the changes listed inside the revised version. I’ve read a lot of examples of telling vs. showing that start with the bad and end with the good. But they don’t explain why they made the choices they did, they didn’t explain the process. It’s almost like seeing you critique your own example.

  • Pea-Emily, I am so glad you have the beta site. I hope it helps you and your work to take the next step toward publication. You have a great group there!

    Tom, I admit it. Critiquing my own work is hard to do. Which is why I did this one backward. :)
    I took a scene I was pleased with and re-wrote it badly. It was fun! And by doing it deliberately, I was able to name all the errors. Welllll. Most of them, anyway.

  • HarryMarkov

    This website lives up to its name, because the metamorphosis here is magical. NO other word for it to be honest. 😀

    SHOW vs. TELL is a foundation block and usually the hardest to maintain. Can’t distinguish sometimes whether I am telling or showing and when I persistently try to tell I use all the shiny words I know and produce purple prose…

    Have you done a post on purple prose?

    And also can anybody join the MWBeta site?

  • Deb S

    Another great breakdown, Faith. Thanks for showing, I mean sharing.

  • Harry, yes, showing gets confusing. I’ll write something and be so pleased at the end of the day. And get up the next morning, reread, and … well dang. I’ve told! And the rewrite is a pain!

    I’ve not done a post on purple prose as, for me, it’s hard to explain, though I know it when I see it. In fact, my AKA’s early style was purple. Hmmm. I’ll see if I can find a way to, uh, show purple!

    MWB is open to anyone who has signed up here at MW and posted a time or two. The members are running the site and all I am doing is making sure that people who want to join are already a part of the MW community. The members have come up with *rules* and I am hoping they will lay them out for me so I can post them on the site for newies and post them here at MW as well. But the action there is fast and furious and people have already had some great critiques, at least according to the responses.

    DebS. LOL. Thank you!

  • scotticohn

    Thank goodness I came across this! It’s the best article I have seen to date on “showing not telling” where emotions are concerned. Like many writers, I struggle with this — not just the “show not tell” aspect, but apparently I don’t do a good job of creating characters that readers connect with emotionally.

    I also think it’s important to realize that sometimes “telling” is the right thing to do. At least that’s the impression I get from reading highly acclaimed pieces of writing!

  • Quote: “I’ve not done a post on purple prose as, for me, it’s hard to explain, though I know it when I see it. In fact, my AKA’s early style was purple. Hmmm. I’ll see if I can find a way to, uh, show purple!”

    I’ve probably got some in my WIP, but after reading Deb Stover’s “The Purple Prose Eater” I’m wondering just what you can use. I was pretty sure my writing was pretty straightforward, but I do have some of of the lesser examples in there. I mean, what do you use if even the more straightforward words are now considered by some to be purple? I may as well just say “and they closed the door and had sex, the end.” That’s actually vaguely discouraging. On the other hand, I haven’t had any real objections from my betas so far, so maybe it’s not as bad as I fear–one even said don’t change a thing when I asked about the steamy scenes. My main beta only mentioned that he thought it was a little strong, but he doesn’t read romance. My wife thought it was fine and she reads romance, and when she read me some of the examples from other books (Dara Joy, Christine Spangler, Susan Grant, etc) and I had to agree. I guess we’ll see when I finally try farming it out.

  • I love how you put it into specifics, Faith. I can’t wait to hear your other tips. “Use stage direction.” Noted.

    Meanwhile … *runs off to double-check her first upload for the Magical Betas*

    I’m really loving the group so far! Thanks for taking the time to intiate this group, and for all the energy you’ve put in so far.

  • Scotticohn. Hi! Two things:
    1) I am a fantasy writer. My genre is constanty evolving. I ignore anything published before 2005 for style matter. And *totally* ignore anything published in literary markets, ever. Seriously. Fantasy is a world unto itself.

    2) There are certainly times when telling is appropriate. In addition to other places, I often *tell* at text breaks (the name for those spaces in books between text that indicate to the reader that *something* has occured. POV shift, time change, etc.) to give the reader an idea of what has happened.

    EX:
    (End of one scene, in a limited 3rd person book)
    Josh stared out over the canyon. It was a thousand meters across. And half that many down. Straight down. This one was going be a bugger.

    (text break)
    (Start of new scene)
    The storm had passed (telling) and the sun was trying to break through the clouds (telling). The lazy stream had become a rushing river, wild with muddy water and dangerous currents (telling). Heavy drops hit Sarah, (telling but moving into showing) falling across her whitewater gear, forming icy runnels (now fully showing) and landing with steady splats on her damaged boat. She shivered, watching the river as mist rose on the frothing surface, a writhing cloud like the breath of mother earth (moves toward telling, but okay as to voice). A tree floated past her, leaves still green and fresh, roots high and thick with soil. A wounded goose sat in the branches, one wing held out, broken.

    She was going to have to trust herself to the raging water in a boat with a five-inch-long split in the bottom, one repaired with silvery duct tape. This descent was going to be … (Fully into voice now and telling only as an adjunct to scene setting.)

  • Daniel, I pretty much ignore books with rules that affect voice. If my voice (narrator’s voice) and my character’s voice tells me to use purple language then I will. Just as I still use adverbs and to heck with those who say not to, NEVER. I use them more sparingly, yes, but I do use them. Just as I use pruple when it is necessary. For example, I drift toward purple when witches are setting up spells, because ritual just screams for purple. :)

    The problem with purple prose is that new writers and midlist writers are bound, contractually, with word count. That is automatically limiting to the purple that can be used.

    As to sex scenes, the mistress of sex is LKH. She seldom refers to a body part, and yet she writes steamy sex. Purple, but steamy. Other writers write sex. She breathes it. It pours out of her like like sweat and passion and heated summer nights… Purple, yes, but lovely.

  • Moira, I am so glad you like it! I am surprised how many people jumped in and how quickly you guys put it together!
    Go BETAS!

  • Alan Kellogg

    Then there are times when telling does the job better. But you need to know why you’re telling instead of showing. Sometimes it can say more than showing would.

    Mr. Gruen loved to torture cats. Who, being cats, rather enjoyed it.

  • Alan, perfect responce. Except for the torturing cats part. Eeeew!

    Yes, the narrative voice and speed of pacing requires us to tell sometimes, but we have to move quickly into showing or it the pace then slows down and the reader feels cast out of the story.

  • 11on2d6

    Hi all! I’m new around here but so far everything I’ve read has been great, thus far this has been the most useful article for me ( a very new writer who hasn’t really written anything except short stories).
    The sections of examples with commentary are great, really goes a long way to demonstrating the specific intent of each sentence, and the subtlety with which emotions can be conveyed, fantastic stuff.

    Sorry for this aside, but is it possible for new members to pose questions to the more experienced writers here, or is that not possible due to the fact you guys would be inundated with too many questions? I ask this because I couldn’t figure out how to post topics :s.

    -Louis

  • Louis, welcome to the party! I’m pleased you’ve found helpful information here, and I hope that continues. You’re more than welcome to ask questions of all of us in the comments. We’re all pretty good about answering!

  • Ditto to Misty’s comment. And sometimes we use the questions to write entire posts around!

  • Alan Kellogg

    Faith, you have to present a challenge, now don’t you.? :)