Show, Don’t Tell: It’s Not Just About Emotion
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
A guest post by Angela Ackerman
When I started writing a billion years ago, a phrase that came up often was “show, don’t tell.” I figured I knew what that meant: to make sure I was always showing what my character was feeling rather than telling it. And like so many things to do with writing, this was true, but also just the tip of the iceberg.
Showing character emotion is incredibly important. When a reader chooses us, our book, they are forgoing time with family, their hobbies & interests, and more. They trust we will give them an unforgettable experience so, no matter what, we want to deliver. How? Emotion. We pull them into our protagonist’s viewpoint and give them everything—every feeling and vulnerability—holding nothing back. And to do this effectively we must master show, not tell.
“Show, don’t tell” is about identifying story moments that are important enough to describe in detail so readers experience them more fully.
With emotion, it’s where we pull back a curtain to reveal inner complexities of a character. Done well, describing these innermost feelings will remind readers of a time they felt the same and they will form a bond with the character.
Showing evokes. Telling informs.
With Emotion, Showing is Almost Always Better
TELLING: When Mr. Maxwell asked who would run for school president, I was ready. Mark had talked me through it, coached me to believe in myself. I could do this.
I began to rise.
A row ahead, Mark shot out of his seat. “I will.”
I collapsed back into the chair, feeling defeated and betrayed.
This moment … ouch, right? Imagine trying for something you really want but are scared to do, getting your hopes up because a friend told you that you can do it, and then they decide they want that thing for themselves. Betrayal. We’ve all felt this emotion, we’ve all had it happen to us. But as you read that example, did you really feel anything? Probably not. Let’s try again.
SHOWING: When Mr. Maxwell asked who would run for school president, I took a breath, slow in, slow out. Like Mark said, if I wanted to change things, I needed to step up. I began to rise.
A row ahead, Mark shot out of his seat. “I will.”
I froze, halfway up. Was this a joke? Standing solid and sure, Mark didn’t even glance back. The last few days played through my head … the ideas I shared with him on how to change things. My confession that I really wanted this. His pep talk in the hall. I collapsed, face hot and stinging. I guess there was a joke. Me.
Did you feel something this time? I hope so. It makes a big difference when you can see the character’s unfiltered thoughts and how they put the pieces together. Slowing down to stretch out important details means the knife goes in deeper, and emotions are clear – defeat, humiliation and betrayal with no need to spell them out (telling).
Show, don’t tell isn’t just about emotions … we need to apply the premise to all types of description.
I’m not saying we should only show, though, because telling has its place. Rather I mean that every word should earn the right to be included. We need to make sure our description is important to the story, not fluff. How do we know? Because it’s essential. Good description pushes the plot forward, characterizes the story’s cast, adds emotion, or supplies deeper meaning in some way.
Let’s Explore Show, Don’t Tell in Other Ways
TELLING: Jonas was a germaphobe and detested being around other people.
SHOWING: Jonas set his paper plate on the table’s edge, as far from the others as he could get. If he didn’t need this meal so badly, he’d never have come into the soup kitchen, packed to the brim with coughers and hackers spewing illness into the air. He shoveled the food down and tried to breathe as little as possible, eager to get out as fast as possible.
Here, showing is active because the characterizing detail is revealed through action, pushing the story forward.
TELLING: Marda’s mother would lock her in the outhouse in the heat of summer as a punishment.
SHOWING: Marda hefted the box onto the high shelf, pushing with one hand while gripping the step-stool’s handle with the other so she didn’t topple over. Even with the door propped open the storage area was a virtual coffin. Not only was she too short for this stupid chore, she didn’t like being in here. But everyone else had left, so she just wanted to get this done so she could go too.
She pulled back her hand, testing the box. It teetered, threatening to fall, so she rose on tiptoe to give it one last shove. Beneath her the step-stool shifted, bumping the door wedge. Too late Marda noticed the light narrowing to a sliver, and then the door clicked shut, leaving her in darkness.
“No, God no.” Her hands flailed for something to hold onto as she navigated the steps. Once down she tried to find the doorknob, her breaths ragged and loud in the small space. Cold metal shocked her palm. She gripped it, turning, twisting, shaking it, but the knob wouldn’t budge. A cry squeezed out of her, a mewling that erased years and put her somewhere else. A place where the walls were close, the air hot, and only a crack of light shone at her dirt-stained feet. Where her mother stood on the other side of the door, sliding a lock into place. “Some time in the heat and stink will remind you to behave.”
Marda closed her eyes, tears spilling out. “Here. I’m here. Not there.” She focused on trying to control her breath and her imagination. Her body was not awash in sweat. The air was not clogged with the smell of sewage. Rats were not scratching at the wood beneath her feet. Someone would come. A janitor, a security guard. Someone. They had to.
A few lines, but this window into Marda’s terrible past is clear. You won’t always need to show a character’s past wound in detail, but if you do, the setting can be a great way to plant a natural trigger so you don’t end up with an info dump.
TELLING: Elina wants to find a loving partner.
SHOWING: Elina nibbled at her sandwich, pretending to read her book, but her attention was focused on the couple picnicking nearby on the grass. They had gone all out—a basket, checkered cloth, a plate of cheese and fruit. Elina’s gaze was caught by something else, though: the man’s hand. How his knuckles ran along the length of the woman’s arm, sweeping back and forth. How he squeezed her shoulder and then nudged her long brown hair aside to access her neck. He leaned in, pressing his lips against her skin. Elina cupped the same spot on her own neck and shivered.
Again, showing brings us into Elina’s mindset, revealing what she desires more than anything else. Showing a yearning like this primes the reader to root for her. They will want her to find the connection and love that she so desperately desires.
When You Show and When You Tell is Up to You
But I encourage you to think in layers as you write, finding opportunities to draw readers into the character’s reality through showing so they can experience the story more fully.
For more examples on incorporating show, don’t tell, visit this post on Mastering Show, Don’t Tell, and to access the largest description database available to writers to help you become a show, don’t tell Jedi, visit One Stop for Writers.
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, (now an expanded second edition) and its many sequels. Her books are available in eight languages, are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world.
Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative creativity portal for one-of-a-kind tools that give writers exactly what they need to craft unbelievably rich stories and characters. Stop by and give our free trial a spin ... writing can be easier!
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