Creative Commons photo of L.Tolstoy and S.Tolstaya by paukrus

Therese here. We recently received a craft question in the WU mailbox, from a writer grappling with how best to show and tell emotion in fiction. I passed the question along to Dave King, editor and author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers–a must-have book for every serious fiction writer, in my opinion–who kindly agreed to take it on. Both question and response are worthy of a share here on the blog.

First the letter:

When you write character emotions into your short story or novel, I was always under the impression that you weren’t supposed to NAME the emotion. For example, if you’re character is experiencing RAGE, it’s recommended that you show that emotion WITHOUT using the word RAGE. However, when reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a novel that many writers are advised to read, Tolstoy seems to name the emotion the character is feeling all the time. For example, Tolstoy writes:

He looked at her, and the fury expressed in her face alarmed and amazed him. He did not understand how his pity for her exasperated her.

So we got fury, alarm, amazement, all without showing any raised eyebrows or clenched fists. I guess I’m trying to find a middle ground here. I don’t mind clenched fists every once in a while, but there are only so many times you can show someone banging on the a table or stomping their feet before it becomes repetitive. But let’s take this to the next level; some people don’t always act out when they experience a powerful emotion.

I just read a novel by Richard Mason, “History of a Pleasure Seeker” and he constantly names the character’s emotions and the novel was brilliant! I knew the character’s motivations, desires, and thoughts and it didn’t sound clichéd. For example, he writes lines like:

Jacobina had taken a scented bath and was feeling wonderfully composed. She knew at once that Piet was not, and the jolt of power this sent through her banished all inclination to guilt.

In the context of the novel that was a very powerful moment and I felt like I got some insight into Jacobina’s desire for control. Try SHOWING that. Good luck.

So much of the discussion on the web on this issue has been on how to SHOW emotions … but I rarely find good advice on how to TELL emotions. Sometimes, emotions are so complex, layered, and nuanced that pure showing just leads to a guessing game. Just because a character raises her eyebrows doesn’t necessarily mean she’s shocked by something; she could be interested, or even better, secretly disgusted by what she just saw and doesn’t want to reveal her true emotion.

So let me know what you think, and hopefully you can help me sort this out. Thanks a million, love your website, been following for years, just before Therese published her first novel.

Dwayne Parker

And now Dave’s response:

We can learn a lot from Tolstoy, but readers have become more demanding since his day. Years of movies and television have changed our perceptions. Ask around – how many of your friends have read War and Peace? All of it?

Even by modern standards, you can occasionally get away with telling an emotion – when finding a way to show the emotion would be contrived or distracting, for instance. But your writing will almost always be more powerful if you can show emotion rather than tell it. And showing emotion is an art in itself.

All good writing starts with good watching. “Rage” is universal, but the way people show rage is highly individual. Some turn bright red, others grow pale. Some clench their fists, others’ eyes grow rigid. The key is to study people (including yourself), keeping an eye out for the unique ways in which they demonstrate how they feel. What is it about someone’s face that tells you they’re confused or content? What do you do with your hands when you’re angry or overjoyed? If you make close observation a habit, your characters won’t need to pound the table or stomp their feet.

Don’t forget dialogue as a carrier of emotion. Certain lines can only be said in anger or pity or contempt. And if you have your character say, “I hate you,” you’re showing the emotion rather than telling it.

You can show the emotions of non-viewpoint characters by the way your viewpoint characters react to them. If your viewpoint character wonders whether someone else is insulted, that’s interior monologue — showing rather than telling. In the Mason example you cited, we see Jacobina aware of her own composure, then she recognizes that Piet doesn’t share it and feels the jolt of power. Because these emotions take place in the viewpoint character, we see them through her eyes.

You can sometimes show your viewpoint character’s emotions by how someone else reacts to them. In one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, Archie, the first-person narrator, has a frustrating interview. We get absolutely no indication of how he feels about it until he walks into the kitchen afterwards and Fritz, the chef, says, “How did it . . . oh.”

Or you can often convey your viewpoint character’s complex, layered feelings by using emotionally-laden words in your descriptions. If, for instance, your viewpoint character sees someone’s smile as “vulpine,” your readers know they feel differently than if they’d seen the smile as “bright.”

Finally, you’d asked how to tell emotions effectively. My advice would still be to avoid telling emotions wherever possible. You’re right that clichéd actions don’t convey emotion well, but the answer is to avoid clichés. And the more layered and nuanced the emotion, the more critical it is to give your readers the unique, specific details – through dialogue, interior monologue, description – that let them know exactly how your characters feel.

Here’s a reader’s challenge. Find an example in your own work where telling rather than showing an emotion is absolutely necessary.

Dave King

Thank you for passing along your wisdom, Dave, and thank you, Dwayne, for the question.



Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~40 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter, or join our thriving Facebook community.