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When To Show Character Emotions & When to Tell

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Show not tell. Nowadays that message is hammered into writers' heads. And for the most part that's true. We need to paint a vivid picture in our reader's minds by having our characters act out the story on the stage of our pages, rather than simply narrating.

After all, we wouldn't go to a theater production and expect a narrator to read the play from the sidelines while the characters simply stand on the stage silently. No, we expect the characters to act out one scene after another, with perhaps a few narrations thrown in here and there.
 
However, emotions aren't always easy to show every single time. But in our age of show versus tell, instead of "sinning" by telling the emotion, many authors leave it out and cross their fingers hoping readers will figure it out on their own.

The trouble with such an approach is that it often confuses readers or leaves them feeling empty, unconnected, and unsatisfied.

A story needs emotional energy for our readers to relate to the characters and story on a deeper level. But how do we know when to show our character emotions and when it's time to tell?

I don't know that I have a straight answer. There's not a formula for how much to show versus tell. I actually think some of it is intuitive to the story. As I've tried to analyze my style and how I write, I've realized that I don't really think through my decisions for when to show versus tell. I just kind of know when the story needs more and when it doesn't.

But . . . if I had to break down the showing versus telling of emotions, I would say that the majority of time we should strive to SHOW our characters emotions. And we can do that in several ways:

Body language: For example rather than telling our readers that our character is angry, we can show our character glaring or narrowing her eyes. Or if our character is nervous, we can have her biting her lip and concealing a gasp.

Dialogue: If our character is angry again, we can have her shouting in the dialogue or perhaps being passive-aggressive with what she's saying. If she's nervous, we can sprinkle her dialogue with terse, short sentences or stuttering.

Action: Once again, if our character is angry, we can have them stomp across the room and slam the door on their way out of the room. Or if they're nervous we can have them hide in a closet or bolt every lock on their doors and windows.

Internal monologue: If our character is angry, we can show the thoughts running through their head, something like: If only I had enough nerve to slam the door in her face. Or if she's nervous she could think something like: My mamma always told me there was no such thing as ghosts, but what else could be out there?

As always, we should attempt to make the emotion clear from the context, and often that can happen when we're using some combination of body language, dialogue, action, and internal monologue that all work together to convey the emotion.

For example, if our character biting her lip doesn't convey the emotion were striving after, then we can add in a sentence of internal narration that compliments it and makes the emotion stronger and clearer.

Usually the trouble comes when we're in a fast-moving part, or a scene with a lot of dialogue, or perhaps a scene with more backstory or exposition, and we can't take the time to show every emotion our character is feeling. If we do, we may end up with a 1000 page tome that's packed full of emotion being acted out, but that no one will want to read.

There are lots of ways to sneak in an emotion so that the reader doesn't realize we're telling them. Here are just a few techniques:

Sparingly use adjectives or adverbs: An angry retort or voice dripping with sarcasm.

Personify the emotion or link it with a simile: Bitterness sucked at the lining of her stomach like a leech.

Have the character name the emotion in her internal monologue: She was so mad she wanted to smash something bare-handed. If only she had enough nerve.

My Summary: In the modern hype to show not tell, writers often go to the other extreme. They take the technique too literally, which often leaves readers guessing how the character feels. If we want our readers to feel joy and sorrow, heartache and disappointment, and the gamut of other emotions during our stories, then we must make sure those emotions are visible in our characters.

What about you? What are some other techniques you use for showing character emotions? Have you noticed writers going to the extreme with showing versus telling? 

23 comments:

  1. I've been studying Cormac McCarthy a lot the past couple of years, read five or six of his books by now, and he is a master at showing the emotion rather than tell. Even though he does not mention the emotion explicitly, he causes you, the reader, to feel what the character feels.

    On one point of yours I differ in opinion, and that is internal dialogue. I consider that to be telling, not showing. For me, showing is what you see in a movie, and you do not see internal dialogue. This comes across as the character looking at the camera, a pause in the action, and a whispery voice overlay ~tells~ you what the character is thinking.

    I tend on the side of not showing enough internal emotion, but rely on my editor to help guide me where I need to add more depth. Usually a few extra sentences are all that are required if the reader needs to connect with the character.

    Excellent post, and something I will re-read and ponderize deeper as I proof my work.

    - Eric

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    1. Hi Eric,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Yes, we do tend to think of "showing" only what we would see in a movie. But I think there are ways to show internal narration (particularly when we're in deep POV) versus simply telling the character's thoughts. I think that's one of the benefits of reading over watching a movie--in reading the "big screen" of the page shows not only the action, but the characters thoughts, so we get to go deeper with our reading experience than we do in movies.

      Personally, I find books that play out only the action (and don't delve into the character's thoughts), are a bit shallow. I'm finishing up Dan Wells "Partials" this week, and I find that his book has scanty internal narration and mostly shows everything the way a movie would. While the story itself is intriguing, I haven't connected to the characters well. Anyway, that's my extra 2 cetns! :-)

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  2. Sometimes "telling" is required. Different people have different reactions to the same emotions—and different emotions to the same situations.

    And "telling" can even be a useful style, if you're going for a specific tone. Hart's Hope by Orson Scott Card was intentionally tell-heavy.

    Example: When I'm about to lose my temper, I laugh. My brother moves roughly, jerkily, and slams things. A difficult process will quickly frustrate my brother, but I'm more likely to be intrigued by the difficulty before I get annoyed or frustrated.

    While it's possible to overdo the "telling" when it actually hurts what you're going for, it isn't something to be completely vilified. Sometimes it's necessary.

    The technique I use most often is "deep" POV, which is a method of applying…every possible method, dependent on what the narrator perceives. If the narrator interprets someone's actions as angry, that's told, but if they're reading body language and wondering "What's ticked him off?", that's what gets on the page.

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    1. Hi Carradee,

      Excellent point about different people expressing emotion differently. We may need to make it clear early in our book that twitching is our character's nervous tick, for example. But after we've clarified the emotion behind the body language, then when we use it again later, readers will already be familiar with it. If that makes sense!

      And Yes, I think it's easy to fall into the habit of overdoing the telling (I have to be careful of it!). But as you said, the current climate has vilified it. And I think we need to find more of a balance.

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  3. It's a hard habit to break. We're conditioned to reject "telling", so we become afraid to be direct in our work. We need more reminders like this, that even the most basic and strict rules can sometimes harm our writing.

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    1. Paul,
      Don't you think some of how much you tell versus show is going to depend upon your genre? If you write thrillers or suspense, you will likely have less space to get inside the character's heads or to show emotion. But I still think to make a book as universally appealing as possible for any genre, we want to get our readers connecting on an emotional level to our characters--at least to a degree.

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    2. Definitely. It can even change scene to scene. In my third book, for example, while there's a steady flow of action, my hero goes through a major inner transformation, so much of his struggle is internal, and that has to be reflected for the reader.

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  4. I'm working on a short story today and having just finished the first draft am going to go back through it and check I've not skipped the emotions completely by trying not to do any telling. Timely advice. Thanks.

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    1. Wishing you all the best as you finish up! Glad the post could give you more to mull over! :-)

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  5. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Jody. One of my 'telling' techniques seems to be in using the first person POV. Then too much of the text can end up describing what the MC is thinking, as if he or she is only the storyteller rather than a participant in the story. Does that make sense? While I've used first person a couple times, I'm back in third for my current ms, hoping my telling is in better balance with the showing.

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    1. I can see what you mean, Carol. I think it would be more tempting to tell in 1st person, almost in a diary format. It's probably more challenging to find ways to show body language (for example) because a POV character isn't going to necessarily notice things that they're doing--like twitching. Those kinds of action usually are so natural that we don't stop to recognize them in 1st person. But third allows us to more easily put in body language that conveys emotion.

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  6. I totally appreciate this article. As a new writer, I often "tell" too much. I need to work on this. However, I find some writers "show" too much and I end up being exhausted by their voice. Having said all of this, I'm a minimalist when it comes to my design aesthetic, so that probably translates to my writing, as well. But I like the idea of readers submerging and interpreting my work themselves instead of me completely dictating to them.

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    1. Glad that the post resonated for you today! I think it's really about finding a balance that works for your unique voice. Sounds like you already have a good idea of they way you write and what you need to do! Wishing you all the best!

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  7. Hi Jody! I know this Post is specifically for writers, but as a reader I couldn't help but make a comment!
    I just wish that the writer/producer of a film that I saw last week, had come to you for coaching on emotions,dialogue,
    internal monologue..in short, EVERYTHING!
    I was left feeling completely dissatisfied by the end (the ending was pathetic too)of the film and neither was I happy while watching it but I had to sit through it to see if it improved, which it didn't!!(eyes rolling!)
    I'm just so grateful that you have it "altogether". No wonder I love reading your books! Keep on,keeping on!:0)

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  8. As a reader, I get very frustrated with current trends. It seems like we are not allowed to explore the emotions and motivations of characters, which is my main reason for reading. Plot and action and all the rest are secondary. The same goes for so much of the television and movies I see. It seems that the popular thing is to have characters do the most shocking things with no warning or motivation at all, and that is deeply unsatisfying to me.

    As a writer, I naturally feel the same way. That being said, you have some great ideas here! I like the idea of sneaking around the "rules" and finding new ways to get what needs to be there in the story whether the general public thinks they want it or not. :) Thanks, Jody! I always enjoy reading your blog AND your books. :)

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  9. I'm getting into this with Silent Oath being so close to release. I'm giving away ARCs in exchange for reviews and blurbs, and currently I'm holding a Goodreads giveaway for a signed copy of the first book, Locked Within. Next month I'll have a giveaway for a signed copy of Silent Oath. Ed Bernstein

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Is this a spam bot that took one of my comments from another blog and re-posted them here?

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