Thursday, February 5, 2015

Show vs Tell When It Comes to Emotions

For today’s guest post, I decided to tackle the subject of depicting emotions because I’ve been in the middle of writing highly charged scenes in the current WIP (which isn’t SFR). The characters’ emotions are always one of the key components of the story. When I first started writing seriously, I struggled with the whole concept of  “show not tell” when it came to what my characters were feeling inside. It was so enticingly easy to just tell the reader my heroine was sad, my hero was mad, my villain was bad…ummm, can we say, not very involving LOL??? Who cares, right?

Trying to satisfy the comments from my early editors, I grappled with how to show these key elements of the story. My daughters have both been actresses, among other pursuits, and they said to me, “Mom, what you need is stage business.” OK, great. Not being an actress, the concept didn’t come naturally to me but I was game to try.  

Here’s a snippet from my most recent SFR, Mission to Mahjundar( a recent SFR Galaxy Award winner): Having gotten Mike to meet with her, the princess seemed unaccountably at a loss for how to begin. She sipped at her fruit drink and toyed with the hem of her gown and then her jewelry, rubbing her fingers over the whorls of the pendant in a slow circle.

Facial expressions and body language are clues to emotion as well. I read a lot of helpful blog posts by authors who had trod this path of learning long before I came along. I read several books on body language. I even read an FBI profiler’s book on the “tells” and signs he used to determine if people were lying to him or telling the truth. The best resource I found was The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This is an excellent reference and quite helpful if you’re struggling as I was in the early days to do show not tell. I highly recommend it!

Eventually I internalized much of what I read and got better at writing the physical details into the manuscript early on. I do know some people who will do an editing pass of the completed WIP just to focus on enhancing the depiction of the characters’ emotions. Here’s a recent example of mine, again from Mission: His cousin’s furrowed brow and thinned lips suggested he felt the same concerns Mike had about what Vreely might be planning.

Of course the words the characters speak are major ways to indicate their emotions. More from Mission:  “So, this is our high-and-mighty princess, girls, come to be a bride of the chief,” Arananta said. “Not so grand now, is she?”
Extending one hand, catching the chief wife’s sleeve, Shalira said, “Please, tell me who’s here? Introduce us?”
The woman yanked the fabric out of her grasp with a sniff. “Your betters, that’s all you need to know.”

I don’t do too much with metaphors and similes but in Mission I do use a local Mahjundan fairy tale to illustrate Princess Shalira’s desperate situation. Here’s the excerpt when she explains it to Mike:
“Playing the Princess of Shadows won’t protect me after his death.”
“Princess of Shadows?” Nothing about that in our briefing. He remembered the empress had also used the term to refer to Shalira.
“It’s an old folktale about a girl of royal blood who hid from her enemies in the shadows of the palace walls, disguised as a beggar, until her true love rescued her.” Gesturing to her eyes, Shalira said, “It’s meant as an insult to me, since I can’t see, not even shadows, and I’ve lived the past fifteen years on the fringes of the court, out of the ‘sun.’ I’m tolerated, protected only because my mother was the emperor’s Favorite till she died. If I reach the safety of my bridegroom's people, then I’ll be safe, free of the empress’s plotting and hate. My mother’s clan is among his subjects.” Shalira blinked hard, and then her face crumpled as she wept.
Used to comforting younger sisters in distress, Mike didn't hesitate. Moving closer, he gathered her against his shoulder and let her sob without interruption for several minutes.

So that’s the short version of where I am currently, in terms of showing what my heroes and heroines are feeling as they undergo the trials and tribulations of my plots. What kinds of techniques have you found most helpful or compelling in your own writing? Or in books you’ve read from your favorite authors?

Veronica Scott is a three-time recipient of the SFR Galaxy Award

and has written a number of science-fiction and paranormal romances. Mission to Mahjundar is her latest. She’s also the USA Today/HEA SciFi Encounters columnist. Her SFR novel Escape to Zulaire won a 2014 National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award. You can find out more about her (cats, earrings, Mars rovers and bagpipes are among her favorite things) and her books at  Veronica can usually be found on twitter at @vscotttheauthor


  1. You have such an interesting blog. Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading your posts. All the best for your future blogging journey.

  2. Thanks for sharing your journey. It can sometimes be difficult to show, not tell. So much easier to say 'she was sad'.


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