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Telling vs. Showing When Emotions Are at Work

By Angela Ackerman

Show, Don’t Tell is one of those writerly phrases thrown out often enough that many writers can’t help but roll their eyes when they hear it. And I get it; the concept is drilled into us from the moment we crack open our first craft book or settle into the seat of our first workshop. The premise is simple: showing means involving the reader, telling means explaining to the reader. In fiction we use both, but because we want our stories to captivate the audience and take them on an emotional journey, showing is used more as it works better to pull readers into the character’s inner world.

Despite us knowing how important it is to involve the reader, it’s easy to fall into the telling trap. Telling (explaining) is more efficient, takes less words, and conveys information quickly. Showing is harder to do because creating meaningful imagery and sharing the character’s emotional mindset is taxing. It also usually requires more words, so if the pace is slowing or the chapter is growing long, it can be tempting to tell, thereby trimming the word count.

Telling works well when non-emotionally-charged information needs to be conveyed, like writing Jim drove to the library or that Sally booked her flight to Miami. Readers don’t need to see the mechanics of Jim’s drive any more than they need the play-by-play of Sally finding the best flight and hotel package for a weekend getaway. No, readers just want to get to the library scene where mild-mannered Jim touches a book laced with a hallucinogenic and becomes agitated and violent, or read about Sally’s romantic tryst in Miami . . . with her husband’s boss.

When emotions are involved, telling can rob a scene of its power. Consider this example: 

Mr. Paxton’s eyes were sad as he gave her the news. “I’m sorry, JoAnne, but your position with the company is no longer necessary.”

Instantly, JoAnne was angrier than she’d ever been in her life.

This exchange is easy to write—but not so easy to read. Readers are smart and can figure things out for themselves. They don’t want to have the scene explained to them, which is what happens when a writer tells how a character feels. Another problem with telling is that it creates distance between the reader and your characters, which is rarely a good idea. In this example, the reader sees that Mr. Paxton is reluctant to give JoAnne the bad news and that JoAnne is angry about it. But you don’t want the reader to only see what’s happening; you want them to feel the emotion and experience it along with the character. To accomplish this, writers need to show the character’s physical and internal responses rather than stating the emotion outright. 

 JoAnne sat on the chair’s edge, spine straight as a new pencil, and stared into Mr. Paxton’s face. Sixteen years she’d given him—days she was sick, days the kids were sick—making the trip back and forth across town on that sweaty bus. Now he wouldn’t even look at her, just kept fiddling with her folder and rearranging the fancy knickknacks on his desk. Maybe he didn’t want to give her the news, but she wasn’t gonna make it easy for him.

The vinyl of her purse crackled and she lightened her grip on it. Her picture of the kids was in there and she didn’t want it creased.

Mr. Paxton cleared his throat for the hundredth time. “JoAnne…Mrs. Benson…it appears that your position with the company is no longer—”

JoAnne jerked to her feet, sending her chair flying over the tile. It hit the wall with a satisfying bang as she stormed out of the office.

This scene gives the reader a much better opportunity to share in JoAnne’s anger. Through the use of thoughts, sensory details, a well-chosen simile, specific verbs, and body cues that correspond with the featured emotion, readers can see that JoAnne is angry, but they also feel it—in the straightness of her spine and the cheap vinyl in her grip, in the force it takes to send a chair flying across the room simply from the act of standing. 

An example like this also reveals a lot about the character. JoAnne is not well-to-do. She has children to support. She may be angry, but she’s also strong minded, family-oriented, and proud. This information rounds out JoAnne’s character and makes her more relatable to the reader.

Showing takes more work than telling, but it pays off by drawing the reader closer to the character and helping to create empathy.

Once in a great while, it’s acceptable to tell the reader what the character is feeling: when you must pass on information quickly, or when you need a crisp sentence to convey a shift in mood or attention. But the other ninety-nine times out of a hundred, put in the extra work and you will reap the benefits of showing.

"Show don't tell": How to avoid exposition in writing, by @writerthesaurus Click To Tweet

Need help when expressing what your characters feel? The Emotion Thesaurus (now expanded into a Second Edition) looks at the body language, thoughts, visceral sensations, and dialogue cues for 130 different emotions.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression ebook by Becca Puglisi – Rakuten Kobo

Read “The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression Second Edition” by Becca Puglisi with Rakuten Kobo. The bestselling Emotion Thesaurus, often hailed as “the gold standard for writers” and credited with transforming how wr…

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression (now a Second Edition), as well as six others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

11 Responses to “Telling vs. Showing When Emotions Are at Work”

  1. angelaackerman1

    Certainly this is the case whenever the character is experiencing a situation that readers find familiar, and emotions definitely fit into this group–we have all felt the emotions the character is feeling, even if what is causing those emotions is a different situation we’ve been in before. This is why it is really important to show the cause-effect of emotions.

    For example, a character could bring in the deal of the century for his property management firm, and so receive a bonus, be promoted, be given a bunch of company perks, etc. and rather than feel overjoyed and proud, he feels empty. Disappointed. This isn’t an expected reaction, but it might be 100% valid, perhaps because our character is great at what he does, but it isn’t what he wants to do. He deeply regrets listening to his parents who pushed him towards business in university, instead of pursuing acting, the career of his heart, instead.

    If we make sure to show the WHY behind an emotion, readers will understand it when their assumptions are not correct. If we don’t do the work to show the why, reader will feel the character is acting unrealistically and disengage.

    Reply
  2. richard murray

    hmmm, I wish i had a way to look into the mind of readers. When readers are provided a why and they saw assumptions are incorrect, will they comprehend positively , defined as keep reading, or comprehend negatively , defined as putting the book down. I wonder. … thanks excellent point on the why behind emotion. This is what makes short stories complicated as fitting said whys sometime can be a challenge in short space.

    Reply
    • angelaackerman1

      Haha, don’t we all! I think though, this is one of the really valuable qualities of having beta readers or a critique group. They have distance and perspective that we can sometimes lack, and can tell us whether the intended emotions are coming through well enough so that readers can see how a leads to be, and understand why the character is feeling that particular emotion in that particular moment. Sometimes we assume we’re showing it enough, but we aren’t quite hitting the mark. Critique partners are great for showing us where we need to work a bit harder to get something across. 🙂

      Reply
      • richard murray

        I agree, finding the best readers to assess is in itself a task, and every writer has their smiley or frowny stories to that.

        Reply
      • richard murray

        sing with me ms/mrs ackerman :)you say a writer and i say a writa, you say a poet and i say a po’t, a mark or a murray, potato potato, lets call the readers off

        Reply

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