Why you should avoid emotion tells in your writing
Telling emotions rather than showing emotions is a common mistake. Many inexperienced writers tell their readers about a character's emotions instead of using language to describe the emotions instead. While there will certainly be points in your writing where it makes more sense to tell rather than show, showing should be your primary goal as a writer. You want to create a vivid picture in your readers' mind that will engross them in your writing.
Consider the following examples:
- When Mary saw her test grade, she was embarrassed.
- When Mary saw the big, red “F” on her work, her cheeks flushed. She crumpled the test and hid it in her desk, hoping no one noticed.
Both examples communicate the same point: that Mary felt bad about her test score. In the first, the author tells the reader that Mary is embarrassed. In the second, the author still shares that Mary is embarrassed, but does so through by showing details (her flushed cheeks) and actions (hiding the test in her desk), creating a more engaging and vivid experience for the reader.
How “Show, Don’t Tell” Affects Your Readers
When you tell your readers everything your characters are thinking and feeling, you take away any nuance in their interpretation of your work. Showing, on the other hand, allows your readers to draw their own conclusions about your characters. While all writing requires some telling, showing lets your readers form a deeper relationship with your text. By forming their own opinions as they interpret the clues you’ve left them, your readers will be more invested in your work.
Let’s take a look at some examples of showing in popular literature:
The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.
In this passage from The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien paints a vivid picture of Mordor’s terror. If he had just said, “Mordor was frightening,” the reader wouldn’t have such a visceral understanding of Mordor as a place. By showing, rather than telling, we get a specific sense of the danger that awaits the heroes as they venture into this place of doom.
Within forty minutes, the voice inside my head was screaming, "What have I gotten myself into?" I tried to ignore it, to hum as I hiked, though humming proved too difficult to do while also panting and moaning in agony and trying to remain hunched in that remotely upright position while also propelling myself forward when I felt like a building with legs.
In this passage from Wild, by describing her physical and mental anguish in detail, Cheryl Strayed helps the reader understand the depth of the pain and overwhelm she felt during her first few steps on the Pacific Crest Trail. If she had just said, “I was challenged by the trail,” the reader wouldn’t have as clear an idea of her struggle. The description here draws the reader into Strayed’s journey and brings them along.
How to Fix “Show, Don’t Tell” Issues in Your Writing
Here are some strategies to address this issue:
1. Try the “Camera Test”
The “Camera Test” is a great way to see if you’re showing the important parts of your story.
Ask yourself, “Can a camera see this?” If the answer is “no,” then you have some work to do. Consider the following example:
- Tell-land is a peaceful kingdom with happy, prosperous citizens. The king is beloved by his people and both rich and poor live in harmony.
Can a camera see what Tell-land looks like? Not really! The camera would need much more information: is the kingdom by the sea? In the mountains? Are the streets paved with cobblestones? Bricks? What does living in harmony mean? What does it look like? Without a clear description, the camera (and your reader) will be left to fill in the gaps themselves.
If an area of your document is flagged as needing more “showing” ask yourself if it’s camera-ready. If it’s not, add in details that the camera could pick up.
2. Implement More Dialogue
Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to put more “showing” in your writing.
Dialogue is itself a “show.” Think about it: your characters will rarely say short, declarative sentences like, “I am mad! I am sad! I am frustrated!” Instead, their words will reflect their feelings and add more color to their descriptions.
3. Focus on Actions
Say you have a character who is a liar. Rather than telling your readers that said character is a liar, think of how you can demonstrate that through actions.
Or, if one of your characters has remarkable prowess in battle, consider how that could be shown on the page. Think about what’s more engaging for your reader: to read “Sir Henry was a great knight” or to walk through paragraphs of description of Sir Henry’s legendary exploits.
4. Tell First, Then Show
Sometimes, the “show” descriptions just won’t come. That’s okay! During your first draft, focus on getting the “tells” down. That will help you sort out the action beats and character reactions through your scene.
Then, on your rewrites, revisit those “tell” scenes to add needed description. Remember the “Camera Test”: ask yourself what the camera would need to pick up on to make your scene shine.
When “Telling” Just Makes Sense
As with a lot of writing advice, “show, don’t tell” is a suggestion, not a rule. There are some instances when telling may make more sense and that’s okay.
Say, for instance, your character is traveling from one place to another. If nothing eventful or important happens on the trip, you don’t need to spend paragraphs describing every detail of the journey. It’s okay to simply get your character from Point A to Point B.
You’ll need to use your best judgment to decide if and how you should change your text.