Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell

Writing compelling emotional moments is the lifeblood of any story and the key to building a relationship between characters and readers. Yet steering clear of the show-don’t-tell pitfalls requires practice and skill. I’m reposting this from where it originally appeared at Romance University to shed light on three scenarios that challenge writers as they search for the right balance of emotional description.

Telling

Telling is a big issue, especially when writers are still getting to know their characters. Often they do not yet have enough insight into the hero’s personality and their motivation to really be able to describe how they feel in a unique way. Instead of using a vivid and authentic mix of body language, thoughts, dialogue and visceral sensations, writers convey emotion  in broad, telling strokes:

EXAMPLE:

Bill had to steel himself emotionally before entering the church. He’d managed to avoid his family for seven years, but his father’s funeral wasn’t something he could blow off. Anger and jealousy welled inside him as he thought of his two older brothers, the ones who always impressed Dad by being just like him: athletic, manly, hard. Now he would have to face them, and hear once again how he was a failure, a disappointment, an abomination that should have done the world a favor and hung himself from the Jackson family tree.

What’s wrong with this passage?

While the above alludes to an unhealthy relationship between brothers and conveys that Bill is the family misfit, the emotions are TOLD to the reader.

Bill had to steel himself emotionally… What does that look like? Does he sneak a slug of whiskey in his car before going in? Shuffle around on the church step, tugging at his starched cuffs?  Something else? With emotion, the reader should always get a clear image of how the character is expressing their feelings.

Anger and jealousy welled inside him… This again is telling, simply by naming the emotions. What does that anger and jealousy feel like? Is his pulse throbbing so loud he can barely think? Are his thoughts boiling with brotherly slurs that show his jealousy: dad’s golden children, his perfect prodigy, etc. Does his chest feel stuffed full of broken glass, and with each thrum of the church organ, the pain drives itself deeper?

Showing and Telling

Another common snag is showing the character’s feelings (thoughts, actions, body language, visceral sensations, etc.) but then adding some telling just to make sure the reader ‘got it.’ This often happens when a writer doesn’t have confidence in their own abilities to get emotion across to the reader, or they question whether they’ve shown the character’s feelings strongly enough for the situation.

 EXAMPLE:

Dean Harlow finally called Tammy’s name and Lacy’s breath hitched. Her daughter crossed the stage in her rich purple robe, smiling and thrusting her arm out for the customary handshake. Warmth blurred Lacy’s vision and she swiped at the tears, unwilling to miss a second of the graduation ceremony. Her calloused fingers scraped beneath her eyelids, a reminder of long hours at the laundry, all to ensure Tammy would have opportunities she herself never did. 

When her daughter accepted her diploma, Lacy shot out of her seat, clapping and cheering. She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. 

What’s wrong with this passage?

Emotion is shown clearly through Lacy’s hitching breath, the warm rush signaling tears, her rapt attention and then finally jumping up to cheer her daughter on. But that last line: She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. This unnecessary explanation of Lacy’s happiness and pride is like hammering a nail long after it’s flush with the board.  In the book, Description by Monica Wood, there’s a great rule of writing called RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. So when it comes to emotion, remember RUE.

Over Showing

Over showing is when a writer gets caught up in the moment and goes too far by showing everything. Too much emotional description can slow the pace of the scene, create purple prose or clichés, and come across as melodramatic.

EXAMPLE:

Finn huddled behind the rusted oil drum, dripping with cold sweat as she tried to control her loud, rasping breath. The sound of Alex scraping the crowbar along the warehouse’s cement floor turned her heart into a jackhammer. A scream built up in her throat and she clamped her teeth tight, converting it into a nearly soundless whimper. Her body trembled and shuddered in the dark, and a cascade of thoughts piled up like shoreline debris– the odd things he said, the strange gifts and creepy poems, his interest in seeing blood—why didn’t these things didn’t send off air raid sirens in her head before tonight? 

What’s wrong with this passage?

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00058]In some ways, this is a great moment showing fear. Body language, thoughts and visceral sensations all work to bring about intensity, but because there is so much of it, it feels overblown. Emotion doesn’t just build here…it roars. As a result, clichés form (the jackhammer heartbeat) and purple prose emerges from too many fanciful ideas (cascading thoughts, shoreline debris, air raid sirens, etc.) The combination of too much description creates the flavor of melodrama, which can cause the reader to disengage. Showing is great, but in moderation. Sometimes an author can say more with less.

Getting the right balance of emotion on the page isn’t easy, so I hope this helps! And if you would like to read about these common problems in more detail (or the other issues with writing emotion), you can find in depth information in the “Look Inside” sample of The Emotion Thesaurus at Amazon. Feel free to take a peek!

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Also, Becca’s at Rebecca Lyndon’s blog today talking about characterization techniques writers can steal borrow from the stellar cast of Finding Nemo. If you’ve got time, please stop by and say hello!

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Balance, Characters, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Show Don't Tell, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell

  1. Mark says:

    Sometimes the Show Tell debate gets on my nerves. Posts like this, though helpful, scream one sided. There are times when telling is OK, even preferred. I HATE being shown everything. Sometimes I just want to be told something and move on. I have an imagination and can fill in the gaps.

    Don’t get me wrong. Vivid writing is important, but I usually disagree with Show Vs Tell examples. I always ask myself, “What’s wrong with the Telling example?” I can’t usually find anything … except that a particular person didn’t like it.

    I read a review recently that said the book was all tell. Yet when I read a page or two, it was certainly vivid enough for me to tell what was going on.

    It all comes down to opinion.

    • Definitely there are times to tell not show. If all we did was show, every book would be a bloated whale that would give us hand cramps just to carry it to the checkout. 🙂 It’s about knowing when to show, and when to tell, and then regardless of that choice, make the telling or showing do double duty–not just convey information or pull readers into the experience but also either characterize, reveal emotion, set the tone, create mood or convey a deeper message. 🙂

  2. Joan Dempsey says:

    I teach an online course that includes a lesson on this topic and one of my favorite examples of “Showing AND Telling” (and why not to do it) comes from <a href="https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/joyce/james/j8d/chapter11.html&quot; title="A Painful Case" from “Dubliners” by James Joyce. He spends most of the story showing us how alone his character is, and then, in the final paragraph, he does this:

    He could not feel her near him in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt he was alone.

    No, no, no!

    How much stronger the story’s ending would have been had he deleted the final sentence!

  3. Great examples! Very helpful post. Thanks.

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  5. Alex says:

    I think the keys to “telling” are being specific and also painting vivid imagery.

    So instead of “He was lazy”, go “He was at times lying in his hammock for hours, just staring at the wide blue sky and enjoying the calm.” Now you were more specific while also being more visual. This makes your writing sound and feel more like a story.

    Of course, consider length. You don’t want to bore anyone to death! 😉

    • Yes, for sure. It’s about knowing which emotions the reader needs to feel to be brought into the character’s perspective, forging empathy. But the reader doesn’t need to know every emotion…that would be chaotic!

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  9. Another great post, Angela – thanks for clarifying this balance between showing and telling!

  10. :Donna Marie says:

    I love when clear examples are given, then explained just as clearly. You actually SHOWed, then TOLD, but since it’s teaching, that works! lol Thanks, Angela! 😀

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  12. It all comes down to balance – you’re right!

  13. Botanist says:

    Getting the balance right is so tricky. I’m glad you included that third point – over showing can be the kiss of death to an emotional scene.

    I’d like to add another pitfall: ambiguous showing. If you plan to convey emotions through showing, make sure that what you describe can be readily interpreted as you intended. A huge hurdle to effective showing is that many physical symptoms (pounding heart, tense muscles, held breath…) could apply to a wide variety of emotions. Many symptoms only really show a strong emotion, while giving no clue whether it’s anger, excitement, exultation…

    • Yes, very good point. This is especially important, because often we do experience several emotions at once, so this can confuse readers quickly if they are not seeing the chain of feelings correctly. We always advice writers understand what the main emotion is, and weigh description with that in mind.

  14. Some things to definitely watch for, thanks for the reminder!!

  15. Yeah, sure… Here’s the problem. You can show Lacy is very happy in this moment, but you can’t show that she’s never before been this happy unless you’re prepared to show her entire life. I agree the “tell” here is poor, but not because one shouldn’t tell here. If it’s important to bring out this fact, then a tell is required, though I’d use internal dialog to bring it out. “Lacy asked herself, had she ever been that happy? She couldn’t think of a previous occasion…” And so on.

    • That could be true in principle, but in the context of most stories, I’m guessing the happiness she feels now would not need to be compared to a previous happiness for this moment to be meaningful, for a few reasons. First, when we experience joy, it is in the moment. It is not a natural process to quantify it by thinking, I am so so happy in this moment, but not as happy as when X happened. Second, to pull back from the experience enough to clarify the level of joy would create distance between the reader and the character, and possibly taint the bond of empathy, because this is a moment to enjoy, to savor, not to explain or quantify. And thirdly, in this scene, her joy is not for herself and her own achievements as much as it is for someone else–her daughter. This type of joy is mixed with pride, and would be hard matched to top on the joy scale, especially in this moment of experience. Perhaps with time she could look back and see the levels of joy, but not now when she is part of the experience.

      Food for thought–thanks for weighing in!

  16. Marcy McKay says:

    You’re so right, Angela. You want a a balance. You do not want to TELL, but you don’t want to OVERWRITE — treating the reader as if they’re not intelligent enough to clue in the author’s intentions. Thanks for this important reminder.

  17. i loved the article on Nemo. having watched it over and over when my kids were little, i know exactly what you’re talking about. i think Crush was my favorite character. (“Give me some fin. Noggin’. Duuuuude.”)

    • I know–I loved Becca’s breakdown of Nemo characters. So many wrongly believe kid’s cartoon movies lack depth, but her discussion on complex and surprising blends of traits in the Nemo characters says otherwise!

  18. Sara L. says:

    I don’t think I’ve read a single article from this site that I don’t love or appreciate in some way. 😀 Will print this out and use it a reference for showing and telling when I revise my WIP. Thank you, Angela!

  19. Denise Willson says:

    This was a really great article, with detailed examples. Thanks!

  20. Thanks for such an excellent post, detailing many of the mistakes that writers make, both novice and the more experienced – if we don’t know our characters well enough then how can we write on their behalf? after all, it’s not what they do that matters, it’s how they do it, and why…

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