When Telling, Not Showing, Emotion is the Right Choice

Hi everyone! A past resident writing coach is visiting us with an excerpt on a new course she’s teaching on mastering emotions: C.S. Lakin. This post is a touch longer than usual but it will give you a good window into some of the things you’ll learn. Please read on!

Many amateur writers tend to tell or name what a character’s emotions are. That’s often because they haven’t learned clever, more effective ways to get the emotion across. It is a challenging task.

when is telling emotion okay?

Telling the emotion doesn’t allow readers to feel or experience the emotion. It often creates more problems: the writing gets burdened with lists of emotions, and in the writer’s attempt to push harder in the hope of conveying emotion, she overdoes it. Adding to that, she might throw in all those body sensations for good measure, cramming the prose with so much “emotion” that the only thing readers feel is irritation.

You’ll notice in great writing that it’s a rare moment when a character names her emotion: “She was scared. She was angry. She was frustrated.” Yet, there may be times when telling emotion is masterfully done. When it’s expedient and helps move the action along.

You can directly state what a character is feeling in a number of different ways: in dialogue, in direct thoughts, in the narrative (in POV), and in narrative scenes.

Think about your character. Yours might be the type to name her emotions. With a young character, for example, it’s wholly believable for her to think in simple labels, rather than in nuance and complexity of emotion. What she is feeling might be complex, and the reader would pick that up, but what she herself believes, how she interprets what she is feeling, might be told plainly as it is understood plainly.

Here’s an excerpt from Whale Song by Cheryl Kaye Tardif that illustrates this technique well:

We climbed aboard the bus, sat down in our usual seats and hardly said a word to each other during the ride home. When the bus reached the entrance to my driveway, I mumbled a quick good-bye and hopped down the steps. The road to my house seemed never-ending and I trudged along, dragging my feet in the sand and gravel.

That’s when I realized something.

I was ashamed of what Goldie had done to Annie on my behalf. I was mortified that I was the cause of someone’s public humiliation. The guilt ate at me.

Until I remembered the bug-infested chocolate bar.

Then the rage set in.  

“You’re awfully quiet tonight,” my father said during supper. “What’s up, Sarah?”

Pushing my cold mashed potatoes to one side of my plate, I looked at him. My eyes burned with the need to tell him how much I hated living in Bamfield, how much I hated school and how mean everyone was―everyone except Goldie. I yearned to tell him about Annie and the horrible things that she had done to me.

I opened my mouth to speak. But nothing came out.

“Sarah?” my father repeated. “Are you―?”

“Can I be excused, Dad? I don’t feel so good.”

“Of course.”

The words were scarcely out of his mouth when I jumped to my feet and rushed upstairs to my room. Closing the bedroom door behind me, I threw myself down on my bed.

“I hate it here,” I sobbed. “And I hate Annie.” I grabbed my pillow and flung it against the door. My face was wet and my throat felt like a fiery furnace. It was hard to be quiet when what I really wanted to do was bawl and scream.

I thought of Annie and my blood boiled. How would I survive three years of being the white kid? How would I endure the malevolent spitefulness of Annie Pierce?

My hatred of her was so intense that I longed to lash out at her, to hurt her physically. I envisioned revenge. My own sweet revenge. I couldn’t allow Goldie to be my savior forever, to be there for me every time Annie decided to be cruel. I needed to be strong, to defend myself. I wanted to overcome my fear of her. I just didn’t know how.

I curled up on my bed, depressed and angry, plotting all the vengeful things I would do to Annie. I don’t know how much time passed before there was a soft knock on the door.

“Sarah?”

The bed sagged as my mother sat on the edge of the mattress.

“Are you okay, honey?”

Her voice cracked a bit and I sensed her sadness.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

I shook my head.

She stretched out beside me and we lay side-by-side, shoulders touching. We stayed like that for a long time, neither of us saying a word.

Working up my nerve, I said, “There’s this girl at school. Annie. She’s the one who cut my hair. And she gave me a chocolate bar with bugs in it.” I took a deep breath and looked at my mother. “Everyone teased me and Annie called me white girl.”

My mother was appalled. “That’s horrible. I’ll talk to your teacher.”

I shook my head. “No! That’ll make things worse.”

“Annie must be a terribly sad and angry girl.”

I stared at her, confused by her comment. How could my mother feel any sympathy toward the girl that was bullying me?

“What do you mean?” I asked in a sulky voice.

She patted my hand and entwined her elegant fingers through mine. “Usually when kids act like that toward someone else, it’s because they are unhappy. Annie may be jealous of you. Or maybe a white person treated her badly at one time and that’s why she seems to hate white people.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but she cut me off. “That’s called racism, Sarah. When you judge someone or dislike them for the color of their skin or their race. When Nonno Rocco and Nonna Sophia first came to North America, many people were mean to them because they were Italian. People can be spiteful sometimes―especially children. Some people just don’t know any better. No one’s taught them that it’s wrong to judge others by the color of their skin.”

I pouted. “Why didn’t Annie’s parents teach her it’s wrong?”

She gave a sad shrug. “I don’t know, honey. Sometimes kids learn from their parents how to hate other people. I really don’t know why Annie feels the way she does.”

I clenched her hand, wondering how she could always see something good in everyone, no matter how nasty they were. That was why my mother was so special.

But I wasn’t like her. I hated Annie.

The bed shifted as my mother rose to her feet. “What are you going to do, Sarah?”

I moaned. “I don’t know, Mom. What can I do?”

“Hating Annie will suck out your own goodness and energy. You’re so much better than that. If you choose to hate her, then you become just like her―no better.” She kissed my forehead and hugged me. “Life’s too short to not forgive those who hurt us. I trust you to do what’s right. Right by your own heart.” She placed her palm against my beating heart. “Forgiveness sets you free.”

Outside the bay window, the sky was woven with fiery cumulus clouds and the sun drifted below the trees. A bald eagle dipped low, soared past the window and disappeared into the night.

As I went to sleep, the last thing I thought of was my mother’s parting words.

“Forgiveness sets you free.”

Here it feels perfectly appropriate and useful to have Sarah name her emotions. Her thought process fits her age and maturity.

Sometimes telling emotions is the right technique to use.

That’s not to say only young characters should name emotions. If it’s in character for your character to think like that, then, by all means, do so.

What kind of character would name her emotion? One that has to have enough self-awareness to be able to identify what she is feeling. Or at least try to identify.

And not everyone is like that. A teen girl is more apt to ponder her emotions than a middle-aged highly educated male computer programmer. Or not.

See, don’t fall back on assumptions and stereotypes. It’s all about personality. Maybe your computer geek is deeply in touch with what he calls his female side. Or maybe, conversely, he’s quick to jump to conclusions, and that includes defining his and others’ emotions by labeling without much thought.

It’s Got to Fit the Character and the Moment

If we keep in mind that the narrative—all the narrative—in a scene is the POV character’s thoughts, it will be clearer to us when to tell emotion. When would your character think to name an emotion? When she is aware of her feelings, right? In the kind of moment when the character would stop and consider how she’s feeling. And only if it fits the character.

That’s why in those manly thrillers, we don’t see the hero thinking about his emotions. We don’t read “General Harris was mad.” Instead, we see his anger as he lunges at the bad guy. Whereas in a thoughtful women’s fiction, we do.

For example, when a writer tells the reader via author intrusion that his character is jealous, it’s one step removed. It’s out of POV.

Jason stood at the corner and saw his girl flirting with Bill Jones in front of the bank. He was jealous because he really didn’t know if Rose’s affections were genuine or if she was just toying with him and he couldn’t bear the thought that she might like that jerk more than him.

We sense immediately that this is the author speaking to the reader. Jason isn’t thinking “I’m jealous because I really don’t know if Rose’s affections toward me are genuine.” Right?

First off, ask: Is Jason the type of guy to stop and explore his feelings—while he’s standing on a corner reacting to this unexpected scenario? Not likely, even if he’s set up to be a touchy-feely kind of guy. Not even if he’s a therapist. Not in that moment when he is reacting. Maybe later when he’s processing he’ll admit to himself that he was jealous. And he might name the emotion. It could be in dialogue, for instance:

“What’s bugging you, bro?” Steve asked him.

“I saw Rose talking to that creep Jones,” Jason said.

Steve eyed him, and a smirk rose on his face. “Don’t tell me you’re jealous.”

“Sure I’m jealous. She just agreed to go to Vegas with me. You’d be jealous too, if Cindy was making eyes at a loser like Jones.”

It’s believable because, in that kind of situation, Jason is going to name his emotion. And it would work as internal dialogue or narrative too:

Jason stormed off down the street and into the nearby coffee shop. He blew out a breath, feeling like he was about to blow a fuse. Admit it—you’re jealous. You just can’t trust her. And that’s your problem. It’s always been your problem.

Which is basically the same as this:

Jason stormed off down the street and into the nearby coffee shop. He blew out a breath, feeling like he was about to blow a fuse. He was jealous. No denying it. He thought he was past that, had gotten a handle on the jealousy after Denise dumped him. But here it was again, like some ugly monster from the Black Lagoon slithering up his neck, whispering poisonous words into his ear.

That’s a bit melodramatic, but I hope you get the point. It’s all about how your character would think. And telling emotion is a thought your character is thinking. Make sense? Still, Jason has to be the kind of guy that would stop and realize he’s jealous, and not every guy is like that. Isn’t it more likely that someone else is going to tell us what we’re feeling?

Yes, telling emotion is much easier and much more believable in fiction when it’s a character naming someone else’s emotions. Because, sadly, that’s what we do. We sum up, categorize, and stereotype others, and if your characters are realistic, they’ll probably have moments in which they do too!

Keep in mind that people rarely immediately, clearly, definitively recognize the emotions they are feeling. They rarely simplify and categorize what they’re feeling into one noun. How often have you seen something happen that upsets you and you think in that moment, “Wow, I’m upset”? We just don’t do that. No, what occurs are thoughts.

“I can’t believe that jerk just cut me off. He didn’t even check the lane before he merged.”

Telling Emotion Isn’t a Bad Thing When It’s the Right Fit

Telling or naming emotion is one of the three ways to effectively convey your character’s emotion. You might find that it’s exactly what you need to punch home a feeling.

Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers, before September 1st, and get 50% off using this link!

C. S. Lakin is an editor, award-winning blogger, and author of twenty novels and the Writer’s Toolbox series of instructional books for novelists. She edits and critiques more than 200 manuscripts a year and teaches workshops and boot camps to help writers craft masterful novels.

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Description, Dialogue, Emotion, Guest Post, Revision and Editing, Show Don't Tell, Tools and Resources, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to When Telling, Not Showing, Emotion is the Right Choice

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 08-15-2019 | The Author Chronicles

  2. Ren'e says:

    This is great advice. When I’m editing my manuscript, I sometimes find I was telling not showing feelings. But when I try to ‘fix’ the issue, I realize telling for this particular character makes sense. Thanks for this article, you’ve made me feel more comfortable about my decisions,

  3. Mary Van Everbroeck says:

    I learned a lot from reading this Post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I’m considering signing up for your upcoming course.

  4. Pingback: Friday Finds #writetips #fiction #qotd – Staci Troilo

  5. Karen says:

    Thanks for this great post. It’s very helpful with the examples you give.

  6. Jan Sikes says:

    What a fantastic post! It just goes to show that every rule in writing is fluid and bendable. This is a perfect example. Thanks so much for sharing it! Dynamite!

  7. Thanks so much for wading into the conversation about emotion. It is true that most of the time, showing is what we want when it comes to emotion, but you’re absolutely right, sometimes telling is what works better. The big struggle I see is helping writers know when telling is justified or not. It’s so much easier to tell, and it is a crutch that is easy to fall into, so we always want to challenge ourselves as to whether it’s really the best way. Great post!

  8. Theresa Henige says:

    Wow. Excellent advice. Usually, people simply say: show, don’t tell. Yet, you give examples of where each tool is appropriate and how to use them. I learned alot from this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.