Oftentimes we use certain words that tell an emotion rather than show our readers what that emotion feels like to the character going through it.
Some of those “emotion telling” words are:
These words tell the reader how characters are feeling, but they do little to show the actual reactions and emotions of the characters.
Before we get into the examples, think about how you personally react when you’re feeling any or all of these feelings. For instance, when I’m angry, I usually cry, my heart rate feels faster than normal, I get a migraine (because of the crying), etc.
And even though there are universally common body language reactions to certain feelings (people usually cry when they’re sad, laugh when they’re happy, etc), each one of us reacts differently to different feelings. And our characters are the same (at least they should be).
Therefore, something you might want to consider when “showing” rather than telling, is your character’s personality. Would your character cry if they were angry? Or would they throw things against the wall? What about if they were sad? Would they lock themselves in their room and lose their appetite? Or would they shed some tears as they eat a pint of chocolate-mint ice-cream while they watch The Notebook?
a). “Erica was angry at her mom.”
Notice how simple this sentence is. It doesn’t say anything to the reader about how Erica is expressing her anger. For all we know, she could also be happy if we just were to change the “emotion telling” word.
b). “I hate you!” Erica yelled at her mom as she slammed her bedroom door shut.”
Here, Erica’s reaction and hurtful words show the reader her annoyance and anger toward her mother (even if we don’t know why she’s angry, her reaction and action reflect that she is).
a). “Joel was disgusted at the food he ordered.”
Is Joel being petty or is what he’s seeing/smelling/tasting truly disgusting? How is he showing such disgust?
b). “As the waiter placed the plate of withered oysters in front of Joel, the stench of sulfur made his stomach turn. His face turned pale, vile began to brew in the back of his throat. “I won’t be paying for this. Please take them back.”
By showing instead of telling, we know that the food presented before Joel were rotten oysters because of their appearance and smell and because of the way his body reacted.
Now it’s your turn! Go to your current manuscript or any writing project you’re working on, find “emotion telling” words such as “sad, angry, happy, etc,” and try this exercise.
Check out “Showing” Tips for Writers Part One for more on this topic.