Showing vs. Telling: Character Emotion

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penMost writers have probably heard the advice “show, don’t tell.” I’ve certainly mentioned it on this blog before, and it’s one of the first things about writing craft that I ever learned. Yet, as I read manuscript submissions, I still see issues with it over and over again. Recently, I noticed that it wasn’t just telling instead of showing that I was seeing, but a particular kind: emotional telling.

First, let’s have a quick refresher on showing vs. telling. To tell the reader something is, of course, to state it outright. To use a simplistic example, let’s say I’ve written something like this:

“It was raining. She walked down the sidewalk, carrying her umbrella. She didn’t want her package to get wet.”

That’s pretty straightforward, right? Now, to show something, on the other hand, is to describe it in a way that’s more subtle and organic; it’s a description that allows the reader to infer what’s happening instead of stating it outright. So, to continue the rain example, let’s replace those three sentences with this one:

“She held her umbrella upright, tucking the package under her coat.”

It’s clear from this sentence that’s it raining, even though it’s never actually stated. Not only that, but we can infer so many details from this simple sentence. We know without being told that she doesn’t want the package to get wet.  Plus, isn’t it easier to picture her, just from this one sentence? You can see her shielding the package. This sentence manages to convey that same thing that the original three sentences did, but in a more evocative and compelling way (and in fewer words).

But showing instead of telling doesn’t just apply to physical description. What causes the biggest problems in some of the manuscripts I see is emotional telling. What does that mean? Well, let’s take a look at that original example again. This time, notice the third sentence: “She didn’t want her package to get wet.” That sentence is telling the reader, directly, how she feels. The revised sentence, on the other hand, shows the same information. We know can infer how she feels from her actions. Emotional telling means describing a character’s emotions outright instead of allowing them to see it for themselves.

For example:

“He was angry.”

This is the simplest form of emotional telling. Let’s try showing it instead:

“He hurled the book into the wall. Why didn’t it tell him anything he needed to know?”

By being specific about his actions and his thoughts, the same emotion is conveyed more effectively. The reader can see what’s happening, instead of just being told about it.

I do want to note here that telling isn’t always a bad thing. There are circumstances in which “He was angry” might be an effective sentence, and it’s certainly much shorter and more to-the-point than a description of his actions and feelings. But it’s important to be able to identify when you’re telling, and to make a conscious and deliberate choice to use it only when it’s effective.

Let’s take a look at a more complex example:

“You’re crazy!” he shouted. “I can’t believe you would do this!”

She looked surprised. “I told you, this is the only way—”

He wanted to cry. “How could you?”

Granted, this is a fairly ridiculous example that I just made up, but let’s look at the emotion here. Can you spot the problem sentences?

Let’s try revising this scene, but showing the emotion instead of telling:

“You’re crazy!” he said, and her eyes widened. “I can’t believe you would do this.”

Why didn’t he understand? “I told you, this is the only way—”

He choked back the sob that was working its way up his throat. “How could you?”

Now, this is still a ridiculous scene, but at least the telling sentences have been replaced with action, internalization, and evocative description. The sentence “She looked surprised” wasn’t descriptive enough, so I made two changes to convey the same emotion: adding “her eyes widened” in the previous paragraph, and including the inner thought “Why didn’t he understand?” Both of those lines suggest surprise, but in a way that shows readers what she’s doing and what she’s thinking. And in the third paragraph, “He wanted to cry” has been replaced with a description of choking back a sob to help readers really feel that emotion. Finally, I changed the dialogue tag “shouted” to “said” and removed the second exclamation point. Why? Because it was clear from context, and the original sentence was overemphasizing the emotion there.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. There are many ways in which I could have revised those lines that might have worked. But I hope you can see from this example how focusing on showing instead of telling can improve a scene.

I would suggest taking a second look at your manuscript and watching for the places where you might be tempted to tell emotion instead of show it. Search for the adjectives that tell emotion—happy, sad, angry, surprised, confused, tired, anxious, etc. Pay attention to the words you tend to use in emotional scenes, so you’ll know in the future which ones to look for. Remember that you don’t have state an emotion outright for your reader to recognize it—and they’ll probably thank you if you don’t.

What do you think? Do you struggle with emotional telling, or with telling in general? Have any tips for showing instead? Let me know in the comments!

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This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

-7 Tips for Writing Engaging First Pages

-7 Tips for Lengthening Your Manuscript

-Problems with Prologues

-Understanding Point of View: Eliminating Filter Words

-5 (More) Common Mistakes I See as an Editor


One thought on “Showing vs. Telling: Character Emotion

  1. Jon Stephens says:

    Great tips here! I really enjoyed your raining example. I know I need to work on doing more showing than telling… Part of the problem for me is visualizing the scene clearly enough, or doing showing without getting cliche: Cold sweat. Flushing cheeks. Knot in the stomach. Raising eye brows.

    Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

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