Showing emotions

August 30, 2011

A fellow writer asked me to explain one of the examples in my “common mistakes in lesbian fiction” list, and I thought I might as well post the explanation on my blog so other writers can benefit as well.

The example in question was about showing emotions instead of telling them. I blogged about the golden rule, show don’t tell, before. Here’s a short recap:

Telling means that you as the writer tell the reader what to think. You hand readers the conclusion instead of letting them think for themselves. That’s not a good thing, because you end up with a passive reader who is not fully involved in the reading experience.


She felt angry.

Showing means you give readers enough details to make their own conclusions.

If the “she” in the sentence above is the POV character, you need to describe what feeling angry feels like from the inside. Describe the physical sensations. You can also use thoughts, dialogue, and actions to show her emotions. My posts on body language might help with that.


Heat shot up her neck until she thought steam was coming out of her ears.

Bastard! She stormed toward him, then stopped. Calm down. He’s not worth it.

If she’s not the POV character, but someone the POV character observes, you need to describe what the angry person looks like from the outside. You can describe facial expression, body language, actions, or dialogue to show that the person is angry.


Her fist smashed into the wall. “Goddamnit!”

Veins throbbed in her temples.

Her hands bunched into fists.

Remember that every character will reveal emotions such as anger in a different way — and some characters might not reveal their emotions at all. Some start shouting whenever they are angry. Others get really calm, with just a tightening of the lips giving them away.

So showing the way characters reveal emotions helps with characterization too. It shows us so much more than just that “she felt angry.”

Any other question you have about writing, please let me know.



  1. It is so easy to see once you see it in action! Thanks Jae.


    • Just giving the theoretical explanation is “telling.” Giving examples is “showing.” 🙂

  2. […] Showing emotions […]

  3. No, I will not show emotions instead of telling them, no matter what you try to coax us into doing. I detest the jamesian doctrine as a degeneration of literate culture.

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