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Use character emotions to show vs. tell

The golden rule in writing, “Show, don’t tell,” is something I try to follow most of the time. The only time I use “telling” is for transitions, to speed up time, get from one place to another, or weave in necessary information. But when writing in scene, I try to evoke character feelings through “showing.”

Loud, neon emotions written flat on the page don’t convey anything except a writer’s immaturity and lack of craft.

When I come across writing like the examples below, I want to stop reading:

  • His guts twisted in fear;
  • Her stomach did backflips;
  • Her heart caught in her throat;
  • He knitted his brow in frustration;
  • She rolled her eyes;

Of course, a writer may get away with an occasional gaffe if the story is compelling enough. I read a certain vampire book a few years ago to see what all the fuss was about. The phrase, “she rolled her eyes,” was repeated so many times that I began making wild moaning sounds every time I came across it. Talk about a turn off (both the phrase and my reaction—my poor hubby didn’t know what to think).

So, how do we convey emotions without “telling,” using clichés, or turning off our readers? One way is to use character actions.

When trying to write emotions, ask yourself this question: What if my character couldn’t speak? What one action can she do to let everybody know what she’s feeling?

An action will externalize and dramatize what your character feels.

So, instead of “her guts twisted in fear,” you could show a physical reaction such as she backed away from something, or she closed her eyes, or she found herself holding her breath, or something else that shows her reaction to the object of her fear.

In one chapter of my memoir, I write about the time my cousin and I discover my father has turned my clubhouse into a marijuana-growing operation.

In the beginning of the chapter, I want to show how my anger is getting out of control and how I react when my cousin teases me as we clean out our garage: “I spun around and swung at her, still gripping the hacksaw. The saw’s teeth dug into her arm. I felt it drag across her skin. We watched as blood sprang up to fill in the little zigzag cuts.”

Later in the chapter, when my cousin threatens to tell on me if I don’t give her my prized eagle feather, instead of saying I was frustrated, I write: “I kicked a gray spotted rock down the driveway and tried to think of something better.”

At the end of the chapter, after we find the plants, instead of writing that my cousin was thrilled by our discovery and no longer wanted my eagle feather, I end the chapter with: “She twirled a large emerald star-leaf under her nose, inhaling it’s perfume.”

Exercise: Find a scene in your story or novel where you want to show your character’s emotions. At the top of a fresh piece of paper, write down the emotion you want to convey. Set a timer for 10 minutes and make a list of actions that your character could take in the scene to show this emotion. Hint: Top-of-the-head stuff comes out first. Look towards the end of your list for the more interesting actions or reactions.

To learn about more ways to write character emotions, read my earlier post “Character emotions: two ways to write about the body.”

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