Have you ever read a novel that felt dry and uninteresting, despite many “exciting” things going on? It was hard to care about the characters, and you might have even zoned out multiple times on the same page.
One likely reason for this disconnect? The author didn’t write enough emotion into their work.
Emotion is what we—not only as readers, but as human beings—connect to. And I’m not talking about the illusion of emotion in writing with basic telling, like “he was sad.”
In this post we’ll go over three different ways to convey emotion to enhance your writing and show you how you can use them together.
The Classic “Show, Don’t Tell”
If you’ve been a writer for any period of time, I’m sure you’ve heard the classic piece of writing advice to “show, don’t tell,” but this advice doesn’t go as deep as it could when it comes to emotion.
Now, don’t get me wrong—this is good advice. But before I show you why this advice doesn’t cover everything, let’s look at an example of “show, don’t tell” in an emotional scene.
For context, John just broke up with Sarah during a public dinner date.
Sarah could only hold her tears back until she left the restaurant to walk home. She was devastated about the breakup.
Sarah blinked back the tears and kept her chin high. Stepping out onto the sidewalk, she struggled to swallow through a tightening throat.
As she walked with her head down, her eyes stung, clouding with tears despite her best efforts. Her fingers slowly went numb where they clenched around her purse strap.
The showing example is much better, right? We’re much closer to Sarah and what she’s feeling than in the telling example. We have more sympathy for her when we see her pain, instead of just being told about it.
But just taking the “show, don’t tell” advice here neglects something important—something that could improve showing and even make telling an option.
Getting Deeper: Your Character’s Thoughts
New authors often forget that their character’s actions are only half the story; how they think and react internally is the other half.
Let’s look at the showing example from before to see what it looks like with Sarah’s thoughts mixed in.
Sarah blinked back the tears and kept her chin high. She wouldn’t give John the satisfaction of seeing her cry, not after everything he’d already put her through.
Stepping out onto the sidewalk, she struggled to swallow through a tightening throat.
This was the last time she’d trust a man, the last time she’d let herself be so vulnerable.
As she walked with her head down, her eyes stung, clouding with tears despite her best efforts. Her fingers slowly went numb where they clenched around her purse strap.
Marina had been right. She should have listened.
See? We’ve been brought even further into the character and can understand what she’s feeling on a deeper level. Her thoughts also tell us about who she is as a character.
When writing emotion, showing is often the better option compared to telling. Even without the character’s thoughts, we can still see the character better, but this doesn’t mean you should throw telling away altogether. Even great authors tell emotions often—the key is just knowing when to do so. (We’ll get into that later.)
But no matter which one you use, you can enhance both methods by including:
- Your character’s thoughts related to that emotion (their internal reason for feeling that way)
- How their reaction is unique to them (making their emotion personal and specific)
Your Character’s Internal Reason
Instead of thinking of “show, don’t tell” in the classic way—show us her tears instead of telling us she’s crying—try showing us why a character is experiencing that emotion instead of just telling us the result.
And this “why” should be an internal reason. John breaking up with Sarah is the external reason why she’s crying, but her thoughts show her internal reasons, or what that external reason means to her.
Your Character’s Unique Reaction
Now, of course, no emotion is ever truly unique, and many people will react to the same situation similarly. But your job as the author is to connect the emotion or reaction to your character’s past and personality to give the illusion of uniqueness.
For example, if someone has a gun pulled on them, it’s natural for anyone in that situation to be scared. But since it’s so natural, reading a scene about a character feeling afraid of a gun isn’t particularly new or interesting.
Imagine this situation with three different people: a single mother, a fanatical religious acolyte, and a suicidal assassin.
We could describe their pounding hearts, sweat dripping down their back, or their hands going numb from clenching their fists. Or we could tell the reader they’re afraid for their life. But the fact that this description could fit any or all of them means it isn’t unique on its own.
(Note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t use descriptions like this. Remember Sarah’s description above? I’m showing you here how to enhance the way you convey emotion, not how to replace it.)
Let’s try to enhance the portrayal of these characters’ fears by making it as unique to them as possible.
What are they thinking in this situation? What do they, uniquely, have to lose?
Let’s look at the mother first. Possible thoughts or reactions unique to her include:
- She might think about how she’ll be leaving her child behind with no family to take care of him.
- She never expected her death so soon and might wish she’d spent more time with her son instead of working.
- She might think of how she’ll never get to see her baby grow up.
- She might try to play on the gunman’s sympathy, pleading with him to spare her for her child’s sake.
- She might fight desperately to escape, to return home to her child.
- She might try to steal the gun and kill the gunman, willing to do anything for her son’s future.
- If being there saves her son’s life, she might accept the death bravely despite her fear.
She fears not only for herself, but for the future of her child. The fear is mixed with grief and regret for what she could have done for him, and what she’ll never get to see him do.
Possible thoughts or reactions unique to the fanatical religious acolyte:
- He might believe that dying in the service of his god/religious leader would be the greatest honor, therefore, death itself would hold no fear for him.
- He might think there is no greater shame than failing his task and standing under the gun of a sinner.
- He might try to take the gunman down with him as an act of redeeming himself even in death.
- He might act holier-than-thou, condemning the gunman for his sins.
- He may try to repent before he dies.
His fear is less centered on death, and more on what this kind of death would mean, whether it’s a lesser afterlife, a shameful legacy, or the consequences of failure itself.
Possible thoughts or reactions unique to the suicidal assassin:
- She might have never feared death, feeling she had nothing to cling to in life after killing so many.
- She might believe being killed herself is a just retribution.
- She might feel relieved she won’t have to kill again.
- She might taunt the gunman, reckless, with no care for herself.
- She might throw away her own weapon, or stand with her arms open with no defense.
- But if she gets rescued, she might realize she’s actually relieved. She might notice her clammy hands and her pounding heart.
She doesn’t think she’s afraid of death, but instead believes she deserves it. But getting a new lease on life could make her realize that no matter how much she thinks she wants to die, she’s still afraid to go.
In each of these scenarios, the character has a gun to her head. But when you add the emotions, thoughts, and reactions unique to them, each character will start to stand out. You can flesh out the characters in your own story even more since you’ll know their backstories intimately.
Now that you know about showing, telling, and getting into the characters’ thoughts, let me show you examples from published fiction.
Examples of Showing Emotion
Below are several examples of how writers show emotion.
Showing Emotion in Supporting Characters
Unless you’re writing in third person omniscient POV, the reader will only know the thoughts and physical sensations of the protagonist. So when dealing with the emotions of other characters, you can only use their body language to hint at what they’re feeling. In other words: showing.
Here is a great example of this from Deerskin by Robin McKinley:
“I want you to promise me something,” she said, and he nodded, a stiff, tortured little jerk of the head; and he never took his eyes from where her face was, under the veil. “After I die, you will want to marry again—”
“No,” said the king in a cracked whisper, and now his trembling grew worse, and his voice sounded like no human voice, but the cry of a beast or bird. “No.”
We’re shown how he’s feeling, even though we know nothing of his thoughts. His grief and denial are made plain through his body language.
However, keep in mind that this type of description works great on supporting characters, not your POV character. A POV character can’t see themselves and what they look like, so this same emotion would need to be described internally.
Additionally, this description would feel distant on a POV character. We’d normally hear their thoughts as well, not just look at them from the outside.
Showing Emotion in POV Characters
Showing emotion in your POV character is often done more through sensations than body language. They’re still displaying body language to others, and you can describe it, but it should be from what the POV character would notice.
We don’t always know how we look, but we can feel it.
One example of this can be found in Outlander by Diana Gabaldon:
On hands and knees, I made for the rocks. I banged my head and scraped my knees, but managed to wedge myself into the small crevice. Heart hammering, I fumbled for the dirk in my pocket, almost jabbing myself in the process. I had no idea what to do with the long, wicked knife, but felt slightly better for having it. There was a moonstone set in the hilt and it was comforting to feel the small bulge against my palm; at least I knew I had hold of the right end in the darkness.
We can see her panic in the way her escape is hampered by her rush. It’s also shown through her hammering heart and fumbling hands. Then, the emotion of this snippet is enhanced by a peek into her thoughts about the knife and her comfort in having some defense.
Also notice how, since she is the POV character, there are no mentions of her expression or how she looks scrambling up the rocks. Everything we are shown comes from her perspective.
Examples of Telling Emotion
Now let’s look at some examples of authors who tell a character’s emotions.
Telling Emotion and Thoughts
Sometimes when you’re enhancing an emotion with the character’s internal thoughts, it may be better to tell the emotion instead of showing, so the pacing isn’t dragged down in too many details.
You can see that in this example from Misery by Stephen King:
There was a queer interval of silence, and Paul was frightened by what he saw on her face, because what he saw was nothing; the black nothing of a crevasse folded into an alpine meadow, a blackness where no flowers grew and into which the drop might be long.
Notice how, even though it’s telling, we still get a deep impression of the emotion through the vivid way he describes what he’s frightened of in his thoughts.
Telling Emotion on its Own
Sometimes an emotion needs to be conveyed briefly and straight to the point. In that case, you can simply tell it.
That’s shown here in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson:
Blomkvist directed him (the taxi driver) to Henrik Vanger’s newly shovelled courtyard, where he lifted his suitcases on to the cobblestones and watched the taxi head back towards Hedestad. He suddenly felt lonely and uncertain.
The author could have gone into Blomkvist’s thoughts of why he was feeling this way, and it might have added to the emotion. However, you can’t delve deep into every single emotion your character feels, and it’s all right to tell the emotion on its own if the scene’s pacing requires it, or if the emotion isn’t critically important.
Examples of Thoughts Conveying Emotion
Some authors convey a character’s emotions by revealing the character’s thoughts.
When Characters Know How They Feel
Often you can convey emotion simply through the character’s thoughts without any showing or telling. The thoughts themselves do the showing.
Take a look at the example below from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling.
(For context, Harry has just been caught flying on his broomstick when the class had been specifically told not to. These are Harry’s thoughts as he follows Professor McGonagall back to the castle.)
He was going to be expelled, he just knew it. He wanted to say something to defend himself, but there seemed to be something wrong with his voice. Professor McGonagall was sweeping along without even looking at him; he had to jog to keep up. Now he’d done it. He hadn’t even lasted two weeks. He’d be packing his bags in ten minutes. What would the Dursleys say when he turned up on the doorstep?
Notice how we’re not told what he’s feeling, nor shown physically, but we still know. Panicked, guilty, ashamed—his thoughts tell us this without needing to state it outright or show us his clammy hands and pounding heart.
When Characters Don’t Realize How They Feel
Some emotions are as clear to the character as they are to the readers, but sometimes their thoughts reveal emotions the characters themselves didn’t realize they’d been feeling.
Let’s look at this example from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini:
But he’s not my friend! I almost blurted. He’s my servant! Had I really thought that? Of course I hadn’t. I hadn’t. I treated Hassan well, just like a friend, better even, more like a brother. But if so, then why, when Baba’s friends came to visit with their kids, didn’t I ever include Hassan in our games? Why did I play with Hassan only when no one else was around?
As you can see, the character is ashamed of his friendship with Hassan, but doesn’t want to see that in himself. These thoughts show both his denial and realization of this fact, as well as his panic as he wants to defend himself.
A Mix of All Three Methods
And finally, many authors use a combination of all three methods.
Mixing Methods to Dwell on an Emotion
Authors will often use bits of all three: showing, telling, and revealing the character’s inner thoughts. This can work quite well, especially if the character is dwelling on their emotions.
We can see a similar self-reflection here from the foreward of Beloved by Toni Morrison:
…I began to feel an edginess instead of the calm I had expected. I ran through my index of problem areas and found nothing new or pressing. I couldn’t fathom what was so unexpectedly troubling on a day that perfect, watching a river that serene. I had no agenda and couldn’t hear the telephone if it rang. I heard my heart, though, stomping away in my chest like a colt. I went back to the house to examine this apprehension, even panic. I knew what fear felt like; this was different.
She doesn’t know what she’s feeling and is trying to figure it out. She’s naming surface emotions in an attempt to place the underlying one, thinking about what could have caused it, and feeling how her body is reacting.
Mixing Methods to Add Clarity and Depth
Sometimes the actions and sensations you use to show an emotion don’t point the reader to the emotion you want. For example, a pounding heart can be attributed to many emotions.
You could add more specific showing, but that might slow down pacing or clog up your writing with too much detail.
In this case, you may want to tell the emotion in addition to showing, so the reader doesn’t get confused.
Here’s an example from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini:
When they left, I sat on my bed and wished Rahim Khan had been my father. Then I thought of Baba and his great big chest and how good it felt when he held me against it, how he smelled of Brut in the morning, and how his beard tickled my face. I was overcome with such sudden guilt that I bolted to the bathroom and vomited in the sink.
The telling and showing of his emotion is the punch following the buildup of emotion in his thoughts. It wouldn’t have the same impact if it were dragged out with more details.
Choosing How to Convey Emotion
When you’re writing any emotion, look at all three ways of conveying it—showing, telling, revealing inner thoughts—and decide which one you feel is best for that scene.
Showing can be used when you want to bring the reader into the physicality of the emotion, anchoring them in the scene. But it can slow down pacing, especially if there are lots of details.
Telling can be used when you want to convey the emotion quickly. Used on its own, you risk distancing the reader, or making the emotion feel flat.
Inner thoughts can be used when you want to make the emotion feel personal to the character, giving it greater impact. Stay in thoughts for too long, however, and it might feel like rambling, or pull the reader from being anchored in the scene.
Conveying a Character’s Emotions
I hope this guide has helped you enhance the way you convey and write your characters’ emotions.
For more ideas for conveying emotions—whether your own or those of your characters—check out our list of 150 words for emotions.
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!