Whether you’ve been writing for decades or are just embarking on your first writing journey, you’ve likely heard the phrase “show, don’t tell” ad nauseum. It’s one writing rule that applies to every genre because it makes or breaks the reading experience for your end-user—the reader. When we take it upon ourselves to tell readers what happens instead of presenting them with scenes to imagine in their minds, we inevitably strip our writing of the one thing our readers are looking for—an experience.
In order for a book to provide a great experience, writers must build tension from the first page to the climax of the story. A huge part of building that tension is giving readers the opportunity to feel positive or negative reactions to characters and their emotions, as well as situations and their outcomes. Telling, or summarizing, any part of your story for readers does not allow tension to build because you remove the ability for your readers to emotionally connect.
You might think writers struggle more with showing and telling when it comes to scene-building, but more often than not, I notice telling creep into stories when dealing with characters’ feelings and moods. Writers are quick to tell readers exactly how characters feel or what mood they are in, but the reality is—humans aren’t always self-aware enough in specific moments to define exactly how they feel or what kind of mood they are in.
The Writer’s Toolbox
So, what can writers do to better show characters’ emotions and moods? They can pull from real life, more specifically, they can use words, tone, and body language to convey emotions and moods for their characters.
Words—Much like we use our own words to let others know we are angry, sad, or happy, writers can use dialogue to help characters communicate how they feel. Not every person is direct about their emotions either, so decide early on if one or some of your characters take a more passive-aggressive approach in communicating their feelings.
Tone—As we know from experience, it’s not just the words we use to communicate our emotions or mood, but also the tone of voice we use when we speak. The same is true for characters.
Take, for instance, the phrase “I’m fine.”
If we read: “I’m fine,” Jess paused. “Really.” We believe Jess truly is fine.
However, if we read: Jess let out a sigh. “Geeze, I’m fine! Okay?” We can see that Jess is actually not fine even though her words say she is.
The second example also shows how the use of opposing words and tone can show passive-aggressive communication in characters’ dialogue.
Body language—We tend to use body language more than words to communicate with others on a daily basis. As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” Take a few moments to think about how you personally would react to a situation you’ve placed your protagonist in. What would your body language look like? How would you react? Are your actions consistent with your protagonist’s personality? If so, incorporate them into your writing. If your protagonist has a different personality from yours and might react another way, write that instead.
Telling vs. Showing Examples
Let’s look at a few samples of telling and showing. You’ll notice each example of telling is a short sentence and does not paint a picture for readers. On the other hand, the showing examples help you see the moment in your mind—which is exactly what we want to create for readers.
Telling: She was angry.
Showing: Jess stomped out of the house, letting the screen door slap back against the door frame.
Telling: She was happy.
Showing: Without warning, Jess jumped into John’s arms. A huge smile formed on her face as dreams of their future together danced through her head.
Now, you try. I’ve provided the telling example below, and I want you to add your example of showing that feeling in the comment section.
Telling: He was sad.
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