E*MO*TION: How I Show, Not Tell, My Characters’ Feelings

One common piece of feedback I’ve gotten in the time I’ve been letting other people see my writing, not just from agents and editors, but from fellow writers, is that I’m doing too much telling instead of showing. I’ve been around in the writing world long enough to know that “show, don’t tell” is one of the most common and, it seems, most frustrating pieces of advice writers receive. It’s taken me a long time to understand what this adage means, even though it reads as if it’s obvious.

I think I’ll continue to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to show, not tell, for the rest of my writing career. But when I was on sub with my forthcoming debut, BETWEEN PERFECT AND REAL, I had an epiphany of sorts about one particular facet of this guideline.

“I feel like I’m being told how Dean feels, rather than shown,” a few people said upon reading my manuscript.

At first, I was confused by this. I’d worked hard on my metaphors. Instead of writing, for example, “I feel nervous/afraid/angry,” I’d described how those emotions felt, often using metaphors. For instance, instead of just “feeling nervous,” etcetera, Dean’s nervousness was a snake winding around his stomach. Sadness felt like a fist squeezing his heart.

And then I realized I was still telling the audience how Dean felt, because I was using the name of the emotion itself in the sentence, and indicating Dean’s observation of that feeling.

Let’s look at an example. This excerpt is from a deleted scene in BETWEEN PERFECT AND REAL.

“Oh my god.” I shut the locker and leaned my forehead against the cold silver metal. “I forgot.” I felt a tiny knot of nervousness form in the pit of my stomach.

In writing this scene, I was trying to describe how Dean felt; namely, that he was nervous about something. Looking at this line again, I can see that I’ve shown that by describing his reaction immediately after he says “Oh my god.” His physical reaction works in tandem with his verbal reaction: he shuts the locker and leans his head against the door. But then I go one step further than I need to, and take it into telling territory by naming the feeling he’s having, which is nervousness. The nervousness is described, but I’m still using the actual name for the emotion in the sentence.

How can I take this back to showing territory? One easy fix is simply removing the word “nervousness” from its sentence. That leaves us with the following:

“Oh my god.” I shut the locker and leaned my forehead against the cold silver metal. “I forgot.” I felt a tiny knot form in the pit of my stomach.

This is okay, but I’m still in telling territory, because Dean is observing his feelings rather than simply reacting. I don’t know about you, but when I was a teen, I didn’t notice what I was feeling as I felt it. (That still happens to me as an adult, just less often.) So when Dean says “I felt a tiny knot form…” he’s TELLING us first that he is feeling something, and secondly, what that feeling is.

So what’s our next step? Let’s remove his observation of the feeling.

“Oh my god.” I shut the locker and leaned my forehead against the cold silver metal. “I forgot.” A tiny knot formed in the pit of my stomach.

Better. In my opinion, though, this is still too much. One thing I’ve noticed in my writing is the tendency to repeat myself. Repetition is a legitimate tool of the craft, but there are ways to use it, and ways not to. If I’m describing the same thing in multiple ways in the same few sentences, I think that is generally unnecessary.

Here’s how I would leave the line in its final form:

“Oh my god.” I shut the locker and leaned my forehead against the cold silver metal. “I forgot.

Rarely does introspection happen in the moment. When I was in the thick of my feelings as a teenager, I usually didn’t observe them as such. Feelings lived in my reactions and immediate physical sensations. So now, when I revise, I am alert for instances of telling like the one in the initial example. Wherever possible, I take out the name of the emotion and anything that indicates the character is observing the feeling, rather than experiencing it in the moment. I think this makes for a more immediate and visceral experience for the reader, and a better story.

What do you think, readers? How do you show instead of tell? Do you find it difficult or confusing, and in what ways?

And yes, the title of this post is a reference to my queen, Carly Rae Jepsen 🙂