Writing Emotions, Part 2: When ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Goes Bad

Image courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net
Image courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net

Last week, I wrote about The Mechanics of Writing Emotion, and I recommended the books The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expressions and Emotion Amplifiers by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This week, I’m sharing some common mistakes writers make when trying to convey emotion.

All serious writers know the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Sometimes, though, even good writers with great stories go off track when they try to show, instead of tell, emotion. I’m a copy editor. I’ve seen things. Bad things. Things you don’t want your readers to see.

  • Disembodied Crazy Eyes I’m not talking about the wonderfully symbolic, bespectacled eyes of T.J. Eckleburg gazing over the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby. I’m talking about a character’s eyes widening, squinting, watering, narrowing, blinking, scrunching, darting, and tearing, trying desperately to show every emotion the character feels. Sometimes crazy eyes get even trickier, and the word eyes is never mentioned. Instead, the character scans, looks, gazes, watches, glares, and stares, all while standing or sitting completely still. Page after page of disembodied eye movement is just creepy.
  • Dancing Eyebrows For a subtle emotional reaction, newbie writers seem to head straight for the eyebrows. Used sparingly, eyebrows work. But when a character’s eyebrows furrow, raise (together or singly), lower, relax, pucker, and draw together, over and over, that doesn’t work. Instead of expressing many subtle reactions, it pulls the reader out of the story and into a bizarre eyebrow dance party.
  • Magnified Mouths Look around in any crowd, and you’ll see mouths fall open, open then close, grin, frown, and smirk, and lips pursing, pouting, drawing tight, and being licked. It’s all perfectly normal within the context of a complete scene. But zero in on only mouths, without filling out the scene, and those same people start to morph into little children blowing spit bubbles. If that’s what you’re going for, of course, go for it. But if your heroine only sits and pouts and bites her lip, and your villain only sits and smirks and snarls, you’re missing out on a range of expression that can fill out your characters and emotionally engage your readers.

Do you see a pattern here? Too much face. A little face action is good. Even a lot of face action can work, so long as that isn’t the only way your characters express emotion. Remember you (should) have a complete mental picture of your characters and what they’re doing, but your readers need you to complete that picture for them with words. All face doesn’t do the job.

Use your character’s whole body to express his feelings. Are his shoulders squared back? Are his hands fidgeting? Is he shuffling his feet? If you’re in his point-of-view, you can also give your reader a peek inside his body, and express that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, or the hairs bristling on his neck.

When your character feels and reacts, make sure you don’t cast aside his body and keep only his head. He doesn’t deserve that, even if he’s a villain.

What have you seen characters do that didn’t work for you? What would you have done differently?


3 thoughts on “Writing Emotions, Part 2: When ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Goes Bad

  1. I recently had an editor say that using any words ending in ed or ly was telling now showing. Yet I have been reading through a favorite best selling book again and am finding it everywhere. (Eyebrows on the rise)…is it really always wrong?

  2. Haha! Not the eyebrows! No, that advice is just silly. Some editors over-edit, and lose the author’s voice and passion. That can ruin the story. You see adverbs (-ly words) and passive language in a lot of best-selling books, because good authors know when to use them and when not to, and good editors don’t over-edit good writing.

    Adverbs ending in -ly are not “wrong,” in that they’re not incorrect English. But they do give a tip-off that the author *might* be using a less-descriptive verb and trying to bolster that verb with an adverb. For example, ‘Alice walked silently past the check station,’ is not as descriptive as ‘Alice slipped past the check station without a sound.’ But adverbs have their place. Not every verb needs to be stellar.

    As for -ed, that’s fine. It’s usually just past tense. The past tense should be as straightforward as possible, though, to keep readers engaged. In *most* cases, try to avoid passive language and keep the subject tightly connected to an active verb.

    Instead of ‘The table was set by the men,’ say, ‘The men set the table.’

    If you remember how to diagram sentences, that comes in very handy. If there’s more than one word in the simple predicate (e.g., ‘was set,’ ‘have gone,’ ‘had testified,’ etc.), the sentence is usually passive. In the sentences above, the first simple subject/simple predicate combo is ‘table was set.’ The focus is on the table and how it ended up looking. That image is passive. The second combo is ‘men set,’ making the men and their action the focus. That image is active. Depends on what you’re trying to say, but usually active works best to engage readers.

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