Friday, December 16, 2011

Creating a Strong Voice: Show, Don’t Tell Emotion

Last week I talked about the difference between showing and telling. One of the most common places author slip up and tell rather than show is when it comes to emotion. It’s tempting to explain that your character is happy, sad, angry or whatever. Simply naming the emotion is quick and seems clear. However, it’s not the most successful method.

Telling us that a character is angry, happy, or upset doesn’t give a picture. We can’t see what that character looks like at that moment. Different people express their anger in different ways, from silently seething to screaming and throwing things, so showing the anger through specific actions and words creates a clearer picture—and one that shows much more about that character.

Showing emotion through the character’s action and dialogue, plus using the five senses, also creates more vivid, dramatic scenes—the kind that will have an editor raving about the writer’s voice.

Here’s another quote from Antarctica: Journey to the Pole, a novel by Peter Lerangis:

            Colin Winslow ran through the canyon streets of lower Manhattan. He ran even though his chest hurt and the rain pelted him and his feet slipped on the wet pavement. …
            His stepmother was dead. It happened while he and Andrew were watching, while they held her hands in the hospital room. She woke from a sleep, called Father’s name, and closed her eyes. Just like that, the pneumonia took her, and Colin felt his heart squeeze, exactly the way it had when his mother had died. Suddenly the hospital walls couldn’t hold enough air for him, so he ran.

Can you tell how Colin feels in that moment, and also how he felt about his stepmother? And yet, notice that no emotion is ever named.

One advantage to showing the character’s emotion in this way is that you evoke a similar reaction in the reader. If you simply have your character see or hear “something frightening/exciting/sad,” the reader won’t necessarily feel frightened, excited, or sad as well. On the other hand, if you describe what the character sees or hears using specific details and the five senses, then the reader can share the character’s emotion.

Here’s a description of the cat Dragon, from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien:

“He was enormous, with a huge, broad head and a large mouth full of curving fangs, needle sharp. He had seven claws on each foot and a thick, furry tail, which lashed angrily from side to side. In color he was orange and white, with glaring yellow eyes; and when he leaped to kill, he gave a high, strangled scream that froze his victims where they stood.”

Can you imagine how the mice and rats feel about Dragon?

Assignment: Write a page on entering a new setting that evokes a strong reaction (fear, joy, excitement, anger, pity). Don’t name the emotion.

Assignment: Remember a time in your life when you were scared. Describe it, without telling how you felt.

Find more writing advice in Advanced Plotting.


  1. Great post, Chris. I think show don't tell is one of the hardest things to learn...and I don't mean learn, I mean use. With emotions, it's especially tough.

  2. Excellent post. Thank you Karen for posting this on your FB or I would have missed this great bit of advice.
    J H Bogran.
    PS: For some reason, blogger won't let me comment using my profile. :-(

  3. Glad you both enjoyed it. People do seem to struggle with show don't tell. They think they are showing even when they aren't. The best explanation I heard was about using sense data -- what we could see, hear, feel, smell or taste (usually the first three) and avoiding the interpretation of that data. It still takes practice, but it is a technique that can be taught and learned!

    (Anonymous, sorry you couldn't use your profile. Feel free to add a signature within the comment.)

  4. Let's try this again.
    It seems now I can...YAY!

    J.H. Bográn (formerly known as Anonymous!)