Show Don’t Tell: Describing emotion

Woman wiping her eyesHow often have you read something like: ‘He felt embarrassed’? or: ‘She started to cry’? and not really felt the emotion yourself?

When was the last time you started to cry because a character in the book you were reading started to cry? Have you thought about why you felt the emotion strongly enough that it touched something in you? 

I bet it was because the description of their bodily movements and facial expressions and actions were linked to the emotional event itself. You were experiencing what they were experiencing because you recognised something you’d experienced yourself.

Telling the reader that one of your characters felt embarrassed or sad or happy doesn’t help anyone make an emotional connection. Describing the physical sensations, their actions, and body language will. You’ll soon have the reader slap bang in the middle of experiencing what your character is experiencing.

When you emerge from a book feeling like you’ve been through an emotional wringer it’s a satisfying experience. It’s what leaves you bereft, worn out, elated. It’s what makes you want to tell everyone, ‘Hey, you really need to read this’.

The woman in the photo may be weeping or getting grit out of her eye – let’s assume for the purposes of this exercise that she is weeping. Try describing her actions – how her face crumples, how she takes out her handkerchief, leans forward to hide her face a little, slips her glasses forwards and dabs at her eyes – and you will soon find you are describing someone who is crying. Try writing about her without using the words, ‘cry’, ‘weep’, ‘sob’, etc. You get the idea.

You’ll also start getting the idea of what Show Don’t Tell means too.

Photo credit: Jeremy Wong

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