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Show, Don't Tell: Emotions

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

One of the most crucial lessons I've learned along my writing journey is the importance of showing, not telling, how my characters are feeling. By incorporating physical emotional responses and descriptions of actions into my prose, I can paint vivid pictures of emotions that allow readers to truly connect with the characters in my stories.

In the tradition of show vs tell, let me show you what I mean!

Telling: Lila climbed into the pool, the water and the warmth from the sun relaxing the taunt tension in her muscles.

Showing: Lila eased herself into the azure waters of the pool, the liquid embrace welcoming her like a tender lover. She reclined against the pool's edge, slender arms supporting her as she tilted her head back, closing her eyes to savor the moment. The sun caressed her skin with its gentle warmth, casting a glow that chased away the shadows of the morning.

The water lapped at her body, the ripples playing a soothing symphony as they brushed against her skin. Lila's breaths came slow and even, her thoughts drifting in embrace of pool.

But let's face it, moments for a character to relax like that are few and far between. So let's do the same for a more typical scene in a book:

Telling: Lila crouched behind the oak tree, peeping out past whirling storm clouds toward the monster crawling out of the pool. She didn’t know what to do.

Showing: Lila's heart thundered in her chest, her breaths shallow and ragged, as she crouched behind the gnarled oak tree. Her gaze darted through the stormy night toward the once tranquil pool.

The storm transformed it into a churning cauldron, spewing forth a monstrous figure. The creature's sinuous form slithered through the water, tendrils a writhing mass of serpents.

As the wind howled and whipped around her, Lila's trembling hands clutched the damp bark of the tree, seeking any semblance of stability. Cold sweat beaded on her forehead, mingling with the raindrops that clung to her skin like icy fingers. Flesh sucked to the ground, snuffling sounds crawling over the paving stones. Tendrils of fear snaked through her veins, leaving her legs too weak to run.

Desperation clawed at her mind, her thoughts racing in a maelstrom of panic and indecision. Should she run? Would it pass her by? Lighting flashed, revealing the storm-whipped expanse of lawn between her and the hotel.

I’d never make it…

It is (hopefully 😊 ) clear that by describing these physical reactions and actions, we can show our readers what our characters are experiencing without explicitly stating their emotions. This technique encourages readers to engage more deeply with the story and its characters, making the entire reading experience more immersive and enjoyable.

Let's dive into some specific examples of how to effectively convey positive emotions, like relaxation and joy, through physical emotional responses and actions.

Relaxation: As I mentioned earlier, a character feeling relaxed could be portrayed by leaning back on their arms in a pool while the sun strokes across their skin. This description creates a sense of comfort and ease, allowing readers to share in the character's tranquility. Other ways to convey relaxation might include a character sinking into a soft armchair, stretching out on a blanket in the grass, or taking a leisurely stroll along a beach.

Joy: To show a character experiencing joy, consider describing their actions in a way that conveys their happiness. For example, a character might throw their arms up in the air and twirl around, laughing and grinning widely. The physical actions of twirling and laughing clearly demonstrate the character's joy without explicitly stating it.

Excitement: To depict a character brimming with excitement, think about how their body might physically respond to the thrill of anticipation. Perhaps their heart races, their palms become sweaty, or they bounce on their toes in anticipation. These physical reactions allow readers to feel the character's excitement as if it were their own.

Love: Conveying love through physical emotional responses and actions can be as simple as a tender touch or a lingering gaze. A character might reach out to gently brush their fingers along their partner's cheek or wrap their arms around them in a warm embrace. These actions illustrate the depth of the character's affection without directly stating it.

Of course, in books we often need darker emotions too. So let’s take a look at those:

Fear: As mentioned earlier, a character feeling fear could be portrayed by shivering behind a tree, hiding from danger. Other ways to convey fear might include a character's heart pounding in their chest, their breath coming in short, shallow gasps, or their hands trembling uncontrollably. These descriptions allow readers to share in the character's apprehension and dread.

Hopelessness: To show a character experiencing hopelessness, consider describing their posture and actions in a way that conveys their despair. A character might slump against a wall, their eyes staring blankly at the floor, or they might bury their face in their hands, their shoulders heaving with silent sobs. These physical reactions effectively demonstrate the character's sense of helplessness and desolation.

Anger: To depict a character consumed by anger, think about how their body might physically respond to the intensity of their emotions. Perhaps their fists clench tightly, their face turns red, or their breaths come out in short, sharp huffs. These physical reactions allow readers to feel the heat of the character's rage and frustration.

Loneliness: Conveying loneliness through physical emotional responses and actions can be as subtle as a character staring out of a rain-streaked window or aimlessly wandering through an empty park. A character might wrap their arms around themselves, as if seeking comfort in their own embrace, or sit alone in a dimly lit room, their gaze lost in the shadows. These actions illustrate the character's isolation and longing for connection without directly stating it.

And that’s what I learned on my journey of writing about showing, not telling emotions! I hope this helps you on your journey and remember, we all get better, one word at a time!

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