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Showing vs. Telling—Feeeeeeeeeelings . . .

Thursday, January 25, 2007

As a reminder, here are the three areas Sol Stein lists as vulnerable to telling rather than showing:

  1. Telling what happened before the story began
  2. Telling what a character looks like
  3. Telling what a character senses (the 5 senses) and feels (emotions)

We’re going to tackle the last part of #3—Character Emotions. This is a hard one, but can be so rewarding when, for a brief moment, we grasp it and find ourselves showing what our characters are feeling without having to think about it.

As I mentioned, I feel there are two standard signposts of telling when it comes to descriptions, senses, and emotions:

Character WAS adjective. (Ned was handsome.)
Character FELT adjective. (Charlotte felt tired.)

This is the type of writing that comes natural to most of us. Starting today, however, train your brain to associate the word FELT with that heavy, scratchy, stiff fabric used for arts and crafts and not character emotions. Felt does not make comfortable clothing, so why “dress” your characters with it? (Ha! And I wasn’t even trying to come up with an analogy!)

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was in a seminar in grad school: make the emotions DO something to the character. Make the emotion the subject of an active verb instead of just an adjective. (Get out your grammar book if you must.)

Which of the following sentences gives you the best visual of the emotion being experienced?:

  • Molly felt scared.
  • Fear made Molly’s skin tingle.
  • Fear tingled on Molly’s skin.
  • Fear ran down Molly’s spine like a hundred tiny mice with cold feet.

Yes, showing uses more words. But it also draws the reader into the story and is an opportunity for characterization. In which sentence do you feel like you know something about Molly? Also, don’t be afraid of similes, metaphors, or other symbolic language—just be sure to avoid clichés or dogeared language.

The most important question that must be answered when deciding how best to show your characters’ emotions is: What is your character’s internal vocabulary? In other words, in what unique way does your character view and label the world? Is she an introvert or extrovert? Optimist or pessimist? Cheerful or depressed? Realistic/logical or given to flights of fancy? What is his social background? What are the cultural/generational influences he grew up with?


Because a World War II veteran who helped liberate the concentration camp at Auschwitz is going to view things differently than a Gen-Xer who grew up in 1980s California. And by giving your POV characters unique internal vocabularies, you deepen the characterization and draw the reader further into your story.

In Brandilyn Collins’ excellent book on characterization, Getting into Character, she covers this at length in the chapter “Coloring Passions.” She writes, “If you want to portray a passion to its utmost, you must focus not on the passion itself, but on its varied components.” One of the best ways to do this is to contrast it against its opposite: “If your character is harsh, find what is gentle in him. If she’s selfish, find her generous side. If she’s self-confident, find her point of self-doubt. If he’s emotionally strong, find his weakness.” In other words, show all sides of the emotions—dig deep to find your characters’ full internal vocabularies.

Characters’ emotions should add energy and keep up the pace of the action in the scene instead of being like a FULL STOP of a telegram. Just as one of the best ways to give character descriptions is in the process of action, use the adjectives and descriptions of emotions to “paint” the landscape of the ongoing scene. If your scene takes place at night, use your character’s emotional vocabulary to set the mood:

  • The hostile moon glared over the jagged wolf’s teeth of the mountains.
  • The incandescent moon dangled like a diamond ring in the rosy remains of the breathtaking sunset.

Even though I haven’t mentioned a character, do you get a feeling for what someone in each circumstance might be feeling?

If you don’t yet have it bookmarked in your favorites or on your favorites toolbar, as soon as you finish reading this blog, go to and bookmark it. Whenever you feel a “felt” coming on, go to the thesaurus and figure out how to come up with an active emotion.

Lady Caroline Lam wrote in her diary of George Gordon, Lord Byron, that he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” For two hundred years since then, romance novelists have been “showing” what this means through their Fabio-esque bad-boy-who-must-be-conquered heroes. These three descriptors are a good starting point for brainstorming. If you are having trouble showing your characters’ emotions, I suggest reading poetry—yes, that’s right, I, the poetry hater, am recommending it! Poetry is an outflowing of emotion using descriptive, showing language. The poet does not write: Today I saw a bird. It made me happy. The poet shows the happiness through the use of descriptive and oftentimes metaphoric or symbolic language. For example:

George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron. 1788–1824598. For Music

THERE be none of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee;
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmèd ocean’s pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull’d winds seem dreaming:

And the midnight moon is weaving
Her bright chain
o’er the deep;
Whose breast is gently heaving,
As an infant’s asleep:

So the spirit bows before thee,
To listen and adore thee;
With a full but soft emotion,
Like the swell of Summer’s ocean.

How do you use something like this? Here’s an example:
She sang as she worked, the sweetness of her tone enough to still the ocean and lull the winds to sleep. How would he ever work up the courage to speak to her?

Get the picture? Here’s your assignment. Take an image from this poem (perhaps one of the colored portions) and apply it to the statement: George was in love, or share an example from your own writing of how you have used your characters’ emotional vocabulary to show how they are feeling.

  1. Vicki T. permalink
    Thursday, January 25, 2007 8:26 pm

    Here goes nothing. 🙂

    She floated past him,leaving the scent of sweet lilacs in her wake. George’s chest swelled and the roar of his heart crashing against the shore, filled his ears. She could never share his feelings.


  2. Georgiana D permalink
    Thursday, January 25, 2007 8:44 pm

    I like Vicki’s! I’m so bad at impromptu (how sp?) writing! Do you realize it takes me an hour to write one page? No joke. It would take me nearly as long to NOT tell that George is in love!

    Great felt analogy! I didn’t realize “felt” was a trigger word. I always think of “was” and “that” as telling. Great post!


  3. Kaye Dacus permalink
    Thursday, January 25, 2007 9:42 pm

    George sipped his water. Anne Hawthorne. Something about her just wouldn’t leave him be. She was pretty, yes. Tall for a woman with a striking figure, as well. But he’d met hundreds, perhaps thousands of beautiful women in his life. No, it was something in the expression of her eyes. What was it Mr. Darcy had said about Elizabeth Bennet? I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.

    Okay, so I cheated…that’s my George’s reaction after meeting Anne the first time in Happy Endings, Inc.!


  4. Kaye Dacus permalink
    Thursday, January 25, 2007 9:45 pm

    Oh, and by the way… the “She was pretty, yes.” comes after he’s already “seen” her in detail. 🙂 So it can be used, especially in a situation like this when it’s being contrasted by another thought–about her attractiveness being more than just “she’s pretty.”


  5. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Thursday, January 25, 2007 9:54 pm

    Here’s my try:

    George flopped on his back in the high grass of the river bank and tucked his hands behind his head. His hopes, once lower than the bottom of the mill pond, rose high, higher than the big, buttermilk moon hanging over her house. The months of loneliness and waiting for his Katie to come home drifted down river on the current. He patted the ring in his shirt pocket. Come tomorrow, his wait would be over.

    Here’s my daughter, Heather’s (14), try:

    George’s heart thumped in his chest as he listened. Her soft voice swept over him like a sweet morning breeze. Her auburn tresses glowed like autumn leaves. The sparkle of her green eyes held him captive. He watched her as she walked away, daintily as the angel who awakens the morning flowers without distrubing a drop of dew. It took him a full three minutes to remember what they talked about.

    🙂 Heather said, we have just described “Twitter-pated” (see Bambi). 🙂


  6. Carol Collett permalink
    Saturday, January 27, 2007 8:30 am

    I chose a paragraph from my WIP:

    Mere’ looked around the cinder block room. Light danced with shadow as it filtered through the tall, narrow windows. Cobwebs swayed in the arches at the tops of the casings. The light called to her, warm and inviting. But Mere’ shivered and goose bumps peppered her arms.


  7. Wednesday, November 4, 2009 9:34 pm

    Awesome post! I followed a link from Jordan McCollum and appreciate the great examples you used here.



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