Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Emotions: Show, Don't Tell

We’ve all heard about the show, don’t tell rule in writing, but have you ever considered what this means when talking about your characters’ emotions? Portraying emotions in your story is essential in order to engage the reader. However, that doesn’t mean the task is easy.

The key to connecting the reader with your story is understanding how to show your characters’ emotions without telling what they’re experiencing. Here are a few examples of how writers tell readers about their characters’ emotions.

-Jacob felt a rush of anxiety as he approached her, ring box in his pocket.
-Linda was so mad at him.
-Monica felt warm and secure in his arms.
-Tommy was excited to see his mom.

Let’s change these examples and show the reader how these characters feel. Notice this sometimes means using more than one sentence to convey the same message. AND THAT’S OKAY.

-Jacob wiped the beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He could do this. He’d practiced the proposal all morning. He was ready. Now, if only his heart could calm to a regular pace, maybe he could relax a bit. He slipped his hand in his pocket. The ring box was still there. Ready and waiting. Taking a deep breath, he knocked on her door.

-Linda’s face burned. How could he do this to her? She grabbed a nearby glass and threw it at her soon-to-be ex-fiance and his lover.

-Monica slid into Preston’s arms and snuggled her head into his nook. A sigh escaped her as his body warmed hers. She was finally home.

-Tommy rushed through the door, dropped his backpack at the entrance, and jumped into his mommy’s arms. His heart was full. He plastered kisses all over her face and promised to never leave her again.

Showing what your characters are feeling allows the reader to experience everything through the characters. Readers will root for the hero and hope the villain gets what he deserves. They’ll feel good when the hero and heroine finally make love. They’ll feel relieved when the missing boy is found. Basically, readers want to get lost in the story, but they want to feel like they’re a part of it, too. In case you haven’t caught on… Readers want to FEEL something when they read.

You’re a reader, too, right? Do you want to feel what the characters are feeling? Or would you rather be told? Can you think of any examples of telling how a character feels? Could you share examples of how a character shows how she feels?

Lynnette Labelle


  1. I think this rule needs to be kept in balance. There's a certain amount of telling that must be done or a story will take forever to "tell" as it were. But I agree... "showing" should take place the majority of the time.

  2. I love it when a book is so well written, I start to feel what the main character is feeling. Those are the best books. :D

  3. Michael: You’re right. There are areas where you should tell the story, specifically when you're summarizing rather than letting the scene play out. The problem many beginning writers have is they don’t know when to tell and when to show. Unfortunately, many choose to tell when they should show.

    Stina: I agree. :)

    Lynnette Labelle

  4. This is probably the hardest thing for a new writer to grasp! Great post.

  5. Kim: Yes, that and deep POV.

    Lynnette Labelle

  6. Excellent examples. It took me forever to get it, but now I'm much, much better.