How Fiction Writers Can Show Emotions in Their Characters in Effective Ways

Editor Robin Patchen wraps up our examination of Fatal Flaw: # 6 Show, Don’t Tell. Writers often succumb to this fatal flaw of fiction writing, explaining and telling and summarizing instead of showing action as it’s happening. Robin gives some great tips on how writers can show by action and thoughts rather than by relying on describing bodily sensations. Be sure to pay attention to this one! (If you missed this month’s post on this fatal flaw, start with this one here.)

This month, we’ve been studying that famous axiom for fiction writers: show, don’t tell. Today, I’m going to tackle what I think is the most difficult thing to show in our novels—emotions.

If you’ve been writing for a while, no doubt you’ve heard it’s not acceptable to name emotions. Don’t tell us Mary is sad. Show us she’s sad.

Many writers lean on a clever trick to show emotions—they describe a character’s physical reactions to emotions. So characters are often crying, yelling, and slamming doors. Their stomachs are twisting, their hands are trembling, and their cheeks are burning. We hear exasperated breaths and soft sighs. Don’t even get me started on heartbeats. Some characters’ hearts are so erratic, I fear they’re going into cardiac arrest.

So What’s a Fluttering Heart to Do?

I’m poking fun, because I do it too. It’s an easy way to show emotions. But I have a few problems with this old standby. First, these things are so overused, they’ve become cliché. (I know your stomach is twisting at the very thought.) Second, having a character clenching his fists might show us he’s angry, but it doesn’t show us the impetus for that anger. Is he feeling frustrated, slighted, or jealous?

All those—and a host of other primary emotions—can lead to anger. Finally—and to me, this is the most important—showing me your characters’ physical responses provokes no emotional response from me. Your hero might clench his fists, but I promise, mine will remain perfectly relaxed. So you might have shown an emotion, but you haven’t made your reader feel anything. And that, my friends, is the point of fiction—to elicit an emotional response.

Let’s take a look at some effective and not-so-effective ways to show emotion.

BEFORE:

Mary opened her eyes and looked at the clock. Her heart nearly leapt out of her chest. The baby had slept nearly eight hours. But little Jane never slept more than four hours at a time. Something must be wrong.

Not again. Her stomach rolled over when she remembered the last time a child of hers had slept too long.

Mary flipped the covers back and stood on weak knees, forcing herself to her feet despite the fear overwhelming her. She shoved her arms in her bathrobe, slipped into her warm slippers, and rushed for the door. Her hands were shaking so badly she could hardly turn the doorknob. Finally, she got the door open and ran down the hallway toward the nursery.

She threw open the door and lunged at the crib. She peered inside and saw the beautiful pink cheeks of her newborn daughter. She placed her trembling hand on Jane’s back, felt the even breaths, and let out a long sigh. Tears of gratitude filled her eyes as she realized her baby was alive.

Our character is definitely feeling emotions. Do you think I can get the reader to experience a few of them? I’ll give it a try.

AFTER:

Mary opened her eyes and squinted in the sunshine streaming in through the open window. She stretched, feeling more relaxed than she had since . . .

She sat up and looked at the clock. It was after eight. Little Jane had slept through the night. For the first time.

Just like Billy.

Mary flipped the covers back and stood. She snatched her robe from the back of the chair and slipped it on. She wouldn’t think about Billy. The doctor said it wouldn’t happen again. The odds against it were astronomical.

Billy had been nearly six weeks old. Jane was almost two months. It was different this time. It had to be.

She slipped her feet into her fuzzy slippers, ticking off all the ways the situations were different. Billy had been sick. Jane had never even had a sniffle. Billy had been fussy. Jane was nearly the perfect baby, only crying when she was hungry or wet.

She must be both hungry and wet right now, but little Jane was silent.

Just like Billy.

No, God wouldn’t do that to her again. She couldn’t bury another child. She wouldn’t.

She stepped toward her bedroom door, remembering Billy’s skin, how gray and cold it had been. At first, she’d thought maybe someone was playing a mean trick on her. But then she’d lifted him. Seen his face. Those gray lips and lifeless eyes.

Maybe it would have been different if she hadn’t been alone when she’d found his tiny body. Maybe if John had been there. But John had been gone on a business trip.

Mary turned and looked at the empty bed. Her side was a jumble of blankets. John’s side was untouched. He was on a business trip. Again.

He’d rushed home that day two years earlier, assured her it wasn’t her fault. How could she have known?

How indeed? How did a good mother sleep through her own child’s death? How did she dream of beaches and butterflies while her son passed into eternity?

If Jane was dead, Mary would join her. Somehow. She couldn’t live through this again.

She stepped into the hallway and took a first step. A good mother would run, but she could hardly force herself to walk. She inched her way down the hall.

She glanced at the stairs. What if she went to the kitchen, made some coffee? Never found out the truth?

She pushed the thought away and continued past the staircase, paused at the nursery door, and laid her hand on the cold metal doorknob. The clock ticked loudly in the hallway, like a steady heartbeat.

She stepped into the room and approached the crib. And there, sprawled on her back, lay the most beautiful sight she’d ever seen.

Jane’s eyes opened at the sound of Mary’s approach, and she smiled.

I hope you had at least a twinge of emotional reaction to that. I know I did. Please notice, there’s not a single beating heart or trembling hand in that example. Her stomach doesn’t clench, and her eyes don’t fill will tears. Yet she felt a lot of emotions. Did you?

Slow It Down

Counselors tell us that thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to actions. As a writer, you can easily show your character’s thoughts and actions. Readers are smart enough to deduce the emotions based on what the characters think and do. So often it seems writers are in a hurry.

When you have a very emotional scene, slow it down. Let us hear your character’s every thought. Highlight a few details. Show the actions.

Why don’t we write like this? For one thing, it takes a lot longer. My first example is fewer than two hundred words and took me about five minutes to write. The second is closer to five hundred and took nearly half an hour.

Writers have to dig a lot deeper to write selections like the second one. I had to remember what it was like to be a new mother, put myself in the shoes of a woman who’d already buried one child, and try to feel what she would feel. Not comfortable, let me tell you.

And you see a bit into my soul, don’t you? What kind of mother would even consider going downstairs and making a pot of coffee? Yet as I put myself in that scene, I looked at the stairs, and I thought about it. Showing emotions means baring your soul.

Sure, it’s fine to have some lines showing emotions by way of bodily response. But don’t limit yourself to that technique. I hope this example helps you see ways you can elicit emotion in your reader through thoughts and actions.

But showing emotions can pull your reader in and get them to feel right along with your hero and heroine. And isn’t that the goal?

Your turn:

What stood out to you as you read the After example? What lines gave emotional impact?

 

56 Responses to “How Fiction Writers Can Show Emotions in Their Characters in Effective Ways”

  1. Florence Osmund June 24, 2015 at 4:41 am #

    I found this article very helpful. It’s a delicate balancing act to slow down the action enough to heighten the emotion but not so much as to cause the reader to skip through the scene because they want to get on with it. You’ve given some good examples for doing just that. As always, another great piece of advice, C.S.!

  2. D. M. Lukman June 24, 2015 at 7:39 am #

    I absolutely loved this article, and I 100% AGREE with your logic. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Nicholas C. Rossis June 24, 2015 at 8:31 am #

    One of the best posts I have read on the subject. Thank you for the great example!

  4. Robin Patchen June 24, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    Thank you!

  5. Normandie Fischer June 24, 2015 at 8:44 am #

    Great advice, Robin!

  6. Curtis Manges June 24, 2015 at 8:48 am #

    Robin,

    You’ve gotten to the ultimate solution here: the truly effective approach is to describe *why* the person is feeling what he or she is, rather than the exterior symptoms.

    • Robin Patchen June 24, 2015 at 8:50 am #

      Thanks, Curtis. I definitely think that’s a big part of it–at least one element of showing emotions. Of course we couldn’t do this with every single emotion–imagine 500 words to replace every frown. But when the emotions really matter, I think they’re worth examining.

  7. K Wodke June 24, 2015 at 8:52 am #

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on this subject. You really bring it to life with your example.

  8. Kathy June 24, 2015 at 11:02 am #

    I’ve been often critiqued that my characters must have more emotion by showing their facial expression and bodily response to situations of distress. I can fully understand from your example how much I have dismissed all these factors by summarizing their feelings. Thanks for such a vivid example of how to convey feelings without putting a label on them.

    • Robin Patchen June 24, 2015 at 1:34 pm #

      Glad it helped. I think sometimes, we believe that the physiological reactions are the only way to show feelings, but personally, I’d much rather know what’s going on in people’s heads. Ever look at someone and think, “What is he thinking?” What’s on their face doesn’t tell us what we really want to know.

  9. Tammy Partlow June 24, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    “If Jane was dead, Mary would join her. Somehow. She couldn’t live through this again.”

    This line stood out to me. It puts the reader in the state-of-mind the character is in at the moment. Thanks for the article.

    • Robin Patchen June 24, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

      Kind of depressing, though, isn’t it? I’m glad it stood out.

  10. Gargi June 25, 2015 at 3:00 am #

    This is a great article! You’ve really “shown” the difference very effectively 🙂

  11. Greg June 25, 2015 at 5:57 am #

    Great article! I like the contrast between showing exterior vs interior. The other trick is doing this with Deep POV.

  12. Sue Coletta June 25, 2015 at 7:09 am #

    To answer your question…I felt every bit of what the mother was experiencing. You’re an extremely talented writer. Slowing it down is so important, yet since it’s time-consuming I find myself breezing over it, too. During my second drafts I’m often horrified at the heart-fluttering, weak knees, and shaky hands in my first draft. Using subtext instead of body cues is what I’m working on now before I send my ms back to the editor. Stellar post!

    • Robin Patchen June 25, 2015 at 7:43 am #

      My first drafts have a lot of breathing–sighing, blowing out breaths, holding breath. I think my characters might suffocate if I don’t show them breathing. 🙂 The key is to leave that stuff in draft #1.

      Thanks, Sue!

  13. nancy brophy June 25, 2015 at 11:48 am #

    nicely shown

  14. Paul Vasquez June 25, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    This is very helpful. Thank you for posting this.

    • Paul Vasquez June 25, 2015 at 4:18 pm #

      I do have one question though. Do you ever feel like you can overdo the inner dialogue? For example, Kurt Vonnegut once said that every sentence should either reveal character or advance the plot. How do you decide how much inner dialogue is revealing character and how much is just killing your pacing?

      Is it just experience and a good ear?

      • cslakin June 26, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

        Genre plays a big part in determining this! I have read suspense thrillers that are hugely internal thought, packed full of worrisome thoughts to ramp up the emotional tension. Getting in close to what a character is thinking while afraid can make the reader feel that fear. For other genres, and personal author writing styles, such as Cormac McCarthy’s, you’ll see almost no internal thoughts at all. Internal dialog can both reveal character and advance the plot, so Vonnegut’s sage words apply here as well. Best is to study other great novels in the genre in which you are writing and note (highlight?) all the lines of internal dialog and their content to see just what that amount is.

        • Paul Vasquez June 26, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

          That’s great advice. Thank you!

      • Robin Patchen June 26, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

        That’s a great question, Paul. Susanne’s advice to study other great works is great.

        You certainly wouldn’t want to have this much internal dialog all the way through a book. It needs to serve a purpose. In this case, we want to get the reader emotionally invested in the scene, and the best way to do that is to let us see what the character is thinking. But if the hero is deciding between a bagel or a donut, you wouldn’t want to show us his calculating the calories of each. That would get old fast.

        At first, it can feel unnatural, but I think the more you write, the more intuitive it becomes.

  15. Victoria Griffin June 28, 2015 at 6:02 am #

    This is a great article. I know I’m certainly guilty of getting lazy and writing scenes as I see them instead of delving into the character. I’m about to begin revision, and I can already think of places I need to expand and deepen. Thanks for the insight!

    • Robin Patchen June 28, 2015 at 2:22 pm #

      So glad it helped, Victoria. Good luck with your revisions.

  16. Sarah Riv April 17, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    This is the best example I’ve seen on this subject! I’m so glad I found it. My stories end up being like the ‘before’ and I never really liked it. It felt like something was off. You’ve really opened my eyes. I tried this on a scene I was working on and now it sounds much better! Now I must look for more tips and keep on writing.

  17. Pat Garcia June 6, 2016 at 8:23 am #

    All I can say is thank you.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Patricia

  18. Mawr Gorshin July 5, 2016 at 5:42 am #

    In the ‘After’ example, it was her questions that showed her doubts and her fears. That gave me the emotional response.

  19. Becky P Ramsay September 8, 2016 at 8:23 am #

    I like how you demonstrate internal thoughts in third person. Many writers want to switch to first person in italics. To me this loses the continuity of the story. So right, body movements and facial expressions keep the reader on the outside of the character. Your before and after is so helpful! Thank you!

  20. Kelly October 11, 2016 at 6:44 am #

    Wow. This has helped a LOT! I’ve had more compliments on one scene that I did this with, but didn’t really know concrete what I was doing. The difference was I put myself there, slowed down, and actually physically moved the way the character would, felt what she would have felt. It was amazing. Thank you so so much for sharing!!

    • cslakin October 11, 2016 at 10:45 am #

      Glad this helped you! Being aware of this can really improve the emotional impact of your scenes.

    • Robin Patchen October 11, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

      So glad it helped, Kelly.

  21. Linda Fulton November 28, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    Excellent article. Always eager to collect knowledge like this. Thank you.

  22. Indigo Skies December 13, 2016 at 3:42 am #

    This is great, but it bothers me slightly. This “slow” method of writing matches the woman’s trepidation and reluctance to learn the truth. But often emotions are felt, and acted on in an instant, and I’m rather uncomfortably aware of the fact that describing something in detail can turn a couple of seconds into a page or more.

    • Robin Patchen December 14, 2016 at 10:05 am #

      That’s true. Sometimes it’s appropriate to slow down a moment. Sometimes, it’s not. You have to use your best judgment.

  23. Mini January 13, 2017 at 11:34 pm #

    This opened my eyes to why writers have to pace a story. Just earlier, I was editing and rewriting parts of my story. It took hours, but it was worth it in the end.

    I think the line that stuck out to me was, ‘How did she dream of beaches and butterflies while her son passed into eternity?’

    I don’t even know how to describe why I like this line so much. I just do.

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have completely understood why pacing and emotions are so important in writing.

    • Robin Patchen January 15, 2017 at 9:27 am #

      Thank you, Mini, for your response. I’m so glad the article worked for you. I loved that line, too. I need to find a place to use it in a book!

  24. Philip February 4, 2017 at 11:12 am #

    Great article. This is what I need to improve my writing. In your example it might go too long and it gets repetitive with the woman’s fears. If it was a tad shorter might be better. Just a thought.
    P

  25. James February 7, 2017 at 10:46 pm #

    Great article. Is it say that I thought the first version was good? The second version elicited a deeper emotional experience, but I thought it told a lot. I can’t seem to find that line. The first version was active, but it did have the typical overdone descriptions. Then I read other books, and I see all sorts of contradictions from what I learn on writing sites. Sighing, knees wobbling, lips curling, eyes narrowing, jumping back, staring. I thought relying on action was great! I thought I found it….back to the drawing board.

    • Robin Patchen February 8, 2017 at 9:18 am #

      Susanne gives good advice. I don’t have an answer. First pass, my characters do a lot of breathing–sighing, heaving, inhaled frustrated breaths. It’s as if I fear they’ll suffocate if I don’t have them breathe a couple of time son every page. 🙂

  26. James February 7, 2017 at 10:55 pm #

    My characters’ eyes are lighting up all the time, and I have character beaming. Subject verb direct object. How do I break from this tyranny? lol

  27. sagar April 9, 2017 at 2:53 am #

    the best way!
    im thankful to u

  28. Steven McKinnon April 10, 2017 at 4:20 am #

    Excellent article — successfully writing emotion is something I struggle the most with, this is a great help.

  29. Maz April 26, 2017 at 6:37 am #

    Excellent post. I want to write with more emotion. Thanks for the great example.
    gramswisewords.blogspot.com

  30. Hannah May 29, 2017 at 2:36 am #

    As a young writer I constantly have the “show don’t tell” philosophy thrown at me and I have read countless posts telling me that “if you’re telling the emotion even just a little bit rather than just completely showing it, you’re doing it wrong” blah blah blah, you get the picture.
    So to read this post has definitely changed my perspective on the delicate handling of emotion.
    You have demonstrated, in my opinion, a perfect balance of show and tell, so that I haven’t just been informed of the character’s feelings, their responses to traumatic events, and their life-but rather I’ve been whisked right into the character’s life to watch it all unfold.
    So many books I’ve read have just informed me that “oh the character is sad” as if the author is just like, hint hint wink wink-this is the part where you, the reader, should be sad too. Preferably crying over my character.
    Or they just say, this person is so angry they’re gritting their teeth.
    Like be angry at the villain because my character is angry at the villain.

    But I feel nothing, because they’ve shown me how the character is feeling but they haven’t grabbed the reins of my emotions and MADE me feel for the character.
    If you get what I mean haha
    Anyways, sorry for the long comment but yeah, I just wanted to say thank you for this article-it was incredibly helpful 🙂

    • cslakin May 29, 2017 at 10:00 am #

      Glad it helps! You might like to read more about that in our 12 Fatal Flaws book. I do a whole PowerPoint workshop on this topic. I think it’s so much more effective to show what a character is thinking to evoke emotion.

    • Robin Patchen May 29, 2017 at 11:01 am #

      I’m so glad you found the article helpful, Hannah! I know what you mean. There’s a big difference between showing an emotion and evoking an emotion. It’s much harder to do the second.

  31. Kiara June 6, 2017 at 12:29 am #

    Thank you so much!! I was really struggling with the concept and I tried some other articles but this one helped the most by far. Once again, thank you so much!!

  32. Perri June 27, 2017 at 7:52 pm #

    “How did she dream of beaches and butterflies while her son passed into eternity?” This line really got to me. I think because I would think something similar. How could I not know? How could I laugh or dream and live while someone I love is dying?

    When my mother died I was at work in the stock vault. I had forgotten my phone on my desk and when I got back to it my coworkers were looking at me and saying my phone had “blown up”. They all knew my mother was sick in the hospital dying and when I got back to my desk they all knew what I did not, that she had died while I was in the vault, chatting with my colleagues. So yeah that line got to me and brought back that memory.

  33. Klaus Schilling June 27, 2017 at 10:28 pm #

    No, I will never refrain from telling emotions directly, and I will not read fictions which shows emotions instead of telling. Showing is necessarily ambivalent and results inevitably in incomprehensible drivel.

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