Editor Dave King on Showing–and Telling–Emotion in Fiction

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.


  1. says

    Hi Dave — no example for you. I just wanted to say thanks for Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I have recommended that book to, literally, hundreds of beginning and intermediate writing students. You show that the elusive quality of “voice” can be taught and learned, at least to a certain extent.

  2. says

    This is a great answer to an intriguing question! I couldn’t agree more about observation. Real life plays such a big role in creating believable characters (and their emotions). And the picture of Tolstoy and his wife was a nice touch. :)

  3. says

    I love this post. It’s so true that times have changed and, therefore, so have readers’ expectations. Thank you for the concrete examples to illustrate your points!

  4. says

    Dwayne, thanks for an excellent question, and, Dave, thanks for an informative and useful response. This is one of the toughest challenges for writers. I’ve found myself writing sentences like, “He burned with rage,” and then cringing. What has worked for me at times is writing it first in a “telling” manner and then revising in a “showing” way. This is a great topic for discussion. Thanks again for sharing the question and the answer.

    • Melissa Lewicki says

      I really like your idea re: telling in an original draft and then rewriting as showing in a later draft. I can see how that method would not slow down the flow of your writing. Thanks.

    • says

      I agree. Telling in a first draft and then revising later is better for the writing process sometimes, if searching for the perfect way to show slows down your momentum. In a highly emotional scene especially, it seems my best writing occurs when I’m in the moment and let it flow, rather than stopping and worrying what little gesture character X should use to show her anger or sorrow or whatever.

  5. says

    That was extremely helpful. I’m editing my first draft, and was getting very frustrated at describing emotion. You gave some great ways to show emotion, without relying on the typical expression. I guess I’m ready to continue on. Thanks!

  6. Dwayne says

    Hey everybody, so glad my question is helping you, too. I just knew that I wasn’t the only one out there with this concern.

    Dave, thanks for such a thoughtful response!

    I especially love this tip: “You can show the emotions of non-viewpoint characters by the way your viewpoint characters react to them.”

    I also love the tip about using “emotionally-laden words in your description.”

    I’ll be on the look out for these techniques as I’m reading away.


  7. says

    Both the question and the answer are fantastic, detailed well written. Thank you for sharing them, there’s some nuggets I’m taking away when it comes to eventually editing my work in progress. I especially liked the bit about studying the nuanced individual ways people show their emotions.

  8. says

    I’ve read all of War and Peace!

    Excellent post. Learning when to tell and how to show effectively make the difference between an all right book and a great one.

  9. says

    Thank you, Dave, for visiting WU today. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is a MUST for all novelists, and my most-used craft book. Dave is the MASTER.

  10. says

    Thanks Dwayne for the question, and Dave for your answer. I’m wondering if it makes a difference if one is writing in first person. In this case, the POV character would have more of a sense of how she is feeling and might be thinking about. Would tell be more acceptable/appropriate there rather than in 3rd person, or would it be the same for each?

    Thank you.

    • says

      I think there are definitely moments in first person where telling might be more appropriate than it would be in third person. It depends on how aware the POV character is of their bodily responses and actions in the moment. In a situation where a character is angry, the first person narrator might note flushed cheeks, clenched fists, etc. In a situation where that same character is composed, they might simply note that and it would be less awkward than describing whatever their body is doing. The important thing to remember is that, like any writing rule, showing being better than telling isn’t true 100% of the time.

      • says

        Dave, this is one of the clearest descriptions of showing character emotion I have read. The insight about first person narrators and showing in internal dialogue is especially helpful.

  11. says

    Sorry, left out a word. The POV character might be thinking quite a lot about how she is feeling and have internal monologue going more than a 3rd person. That’s my question.

  12. Dwayne says

    Mary, what a great question.

    In fact, I forgot to include in my question that I was specifically speaking about 3rd Person Point of View narratives. Both of the examples I cited in my question were from 3rd Person Novels, “Anna Karenina” and “History of a Pleasure Seeker,” by Richard Mason.

    I would suspect that the tables turn significantly when dealing with a 1st-person narrators.

    But, of course, let’s let the experts weigh in on this.

  13. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Thank you, Dwayne for your question, and thank you Dave for your answer. This is a very informative post and one I will bookmark.

    I bought Self-Editing for Fiction Writers last year, when it was recommended in answer to an editing question I posted on the WU Facebook site. It is an invaluable reference, and helped me refine the final draft of my manuscript, to land a publishing contract. I am very grateful to both WU for the recommendation of this book, and to the book’s authors. Thank you for the clear and non condescending explanations as to why certain mechanics work to bring out the best in a writer, in both the book and in this post. I have learned so much from you, and continue to learn, in this never ending journey to become the best writer I can be.

  14. says

    Very nice, Dave. As an editor, I agree that illustrating emotion through physical behavior or internal monologue is the stronger way to go, although there are some times when summary or telling about an emotional response can be effective. Thanks.

  15. says

    LOVED the ways to show emotion without “telling” them. Sometimes I read posts that give advice and they just don’t resonate with me and I come away more confused. Not this time. Thank you so much for explaining, Dwayne.

  16. says

    Would love to see a follow up post on showing emotions with the first person narrator. Always looking to add to my bag of tricks.

    Love the old photo.

  17. says

    Excellent question, Mary.

    When your viewpoint character thinks about how they feel, that is showing emotion rather than telling it. It makes no difference whether that happens in the first person or the third.

    Of course, first person makes it easier for you, the writer, to keep the point of view intimate. When you’re already writing in your character’s voice, it’s very easy to move into the interior monologue that shows emotion. But that doesn’t mean the first person is more effective, only that you have to work a little harder when you’re writing in the third.

    If you’d like to read more, I’ve posted an article about narrative distance that I wrote for Writer’s Digest years ago. Just go to my website — http://www.davekingedits.com — click on “Writing Advice” and “Decoding Narrative Distance.”

  18. says

    Dave & Dwayne,

    Thanks so much for responding to my question. I really struggle with showing emotion in my writing and am always looking for some way to unlock this mystery for me.

  19. says

    A fabulous post, Dave, and Writer Unboxed! Thank you for sharing and adding to the wealth of information for us here.

    And thank you, Dave, for your Self-Editing book. A wonderful resource.

  20. says

    This was a great article. I especially liked how you said that saying “I hate you” is actually showing an emotion rather than telling.

    Yeah the person could spit on their face instead, but dialogue often gets overlooked as a form of expression.

  21. says

    Thank you for a great post on writing emotions. I’m with you. Sometimes, the nuances of emotions require more than a description of body language or tone of voice.