Show–Don’t Tell–Your Character’s Emotions

“Writers end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their body waiting to be released.”
– Natalie Goldberg

Fiction writers, more than those that write non-fiction, have to show what is happening within a scene. This allows the reader to grasp what is going on with the characters. It makes the characters more three-dimensional. It heightens your plot, moves your story along at a steady pace and doesn’t bore the reader. Some writers really struggle with this concept.  But, fiction writers use said too much in their dialogue tags. While I believe this is a good habit, too much of it can confuse the reader.

So let’s jump into it. Through this blog post, you’re going to learn how to show emotion and how it can impact your story.


Look at this sentence:

He was angry at his friend.

The reader is being told what is happening. Now look again:

Roger’s beet red face tightened with emotion. The glass on the table shattered from his booming voice. White knuckles result from his clenching his fists.

This colorful description allows the reader to see how angry Roger has become. It paints a mental picture of his expression and body language, whereas the first sentence leaves much to be desired. We know somebody is angry, but we know who is displaying anger. The details are vague and often these vague sentences are skipped over by readers.

Now let’s look at other ways to say angry. I’m going to use the first sentence above for these examples.

He was angry with his friend.

(This implies that one has a strong sense of displeasure of hostility toward another person.)

He was enraged with his friend.

(A person is very angry. They may be screaming or shouting, being demanding or controlling.)

He was sore with his friend.

(A person is very angry because they feel they have been treated unfairly.)

He was huffy with his friend.

(A person is annoyed or irritated. It’s possible they easily take offense to what a person says.)

He was impassioned with his friend.

(A person expresses strong feeling over someone/thing.)

He was galled with his friend.

(A person makes someone else feel annoyed.)

Think of the different ways you express this emotion. How can show it instead of it tell it? Let’s contrast it with a positive emotion: love.

Here’s a vague sentence:

His love is all that she needs.

And now, a more colorful example:

Affectionately he caresses his wife, stroking her hair and caressing her in his arms.

Ok, so I’ll never be quite the romance writer, but I think you get the idea. Here are some other ways you can say love within your story:

His love is all that she needs.

(This implies a person has a deep affection for another.)

His yearning is all that she needs.

(A person deeply longs for someone/thing.)

His adoration is all that she needs.

(A person has a deep love and respect for another person.)

His passion is all that she needs.

(A strong and uncontrollable emotion.)

His fondness is all that she needs.

(One has an affection for another person, but perhaps not necessary love.)

His infatuation is all that she needs.

(A short-lived passion for someone/thing.)

It’s important to note that not all synonyms are created equal. This is clearly proven here. While I fully support writers using synonyms, always look them up in the dictionary. You don’t want to unintentionally misinterpret the context of a sentence. Instead, keep a word list. How are the synonyms different (and how are the same)? Knowing this will improve your writing. 

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