Painting With Words


We recently talked about expressing feelings in your stories HERE

One thing I’m constantly telling new writers is to show what’s happening to the reader, don’t just tell the reader it happened. That’s what people mean when they say “show, don’t tell.” When it comes to emotions, that’s harder, so I ask them: How does this physically manifest itself?


Tell me what you see that says fear
Tell me what you see that says fear

If you’re scared, what do you do physically, that can be described?

Put your hands to your face

Raise your eyebrows

Back away

Hold your breath




What do you see that tells you he is angry?
What do you see that tells you he is angry?

If you’re angry, what do you do physically, that can be described?

Clench your fists

Clench your teeth

Hold your breath

Stomp your foot

Turn red in the face

Look at those neck muscles. Wow. Tense.

Maybe a vein starts to stick out…

(Google an image of a person expressing that emotion and write down what you see. We’re visual beings, so we understand what we see. If we read it, we visualize it. Same thing.)

These are just quick examples because I’m not trying to tell you what I do when I’m mad, I’m trying to get you to think about what you or your character does.

Watch actors on Tv shows (because you can rewind; I write slow) and describe the things they do to express emotions. Long pauses, blinking away a tear…

You can add to that in two ways. First, sometimes you NEED to just tell – for effect. More on that in a sec.

Now when do we bring up those FEELINGS?

Not just any old time.

Think about really macho leading man types in older movies. I don’t mean Die Hard, I mean John Wayne in The Searchers. The tougher the guy, the harder, right? Except, certain stuff pushes his buttons and goes right to his core. Here’s a big tough guy who’s seen it all but he cringes at the thought of a young girl being hurt or dead, so he drops everything to help.

That’s bold and tough.

The cringe part is what makes him human, and not a machine. The way he respects his brother and his brother’s family. So it’s there – thinly – and always has been, but while some readers get it, others might not, and so we have to simply paint a slightly more vivid picture. And it’s easily added after the fact if necessary. A few words here and there and you’ve done it. As you revisit where to add it, you’ll also remember to add it as you write new stuff.

At NO point in a story, John Wayne or Bruce Willis, do you think he won’t ultimately save the day. That’s Hollywood. Writers still need to raise the possibility of failure, even if we all know the hero will save the day. There’s a difference.

Here’s how you get there.

Think about the tough loner cowboy. He has to find the lost girl who’s been abducted by bad guys. Some have people been killed by these bad guys… Now, even though your hero WILL find her and save the day, imagine him finding the girl’s dead body. Her limp, lifeless corpse laying in the weeds by the road, right were the bad guys left her, like a piece of trash.

His tough guy exterior might force him to work through it, then he’d go get drunk to avoid the emotion. If he allowed himself to put his head down and cry, is it really still him? Maybe. A kid dying might do that. One that he went to a birthday party for, one that he knew and liked, and helped cross the street by holding hands – use those little everyday things that we take for granted and make the big tough guy deal with the thoughts that are not always common to him.

Learn about putting yourself out there as a writer HERE

So, YOU think of what that reaction would be if he finds her dead. You decide what it is, and then write it out in a document that only you see. By expressing the emotions of that scene (that doesn’t really happen in your story), you capture them – and it’ll be in the background of his decisions as he moves along in the story looking for her. It’s a little bucket of paint you dip into here and there, to enhance the setting.

I had/have a scene where MC Mike has to explain to his young daughter how he hurt her mom/his wife (Mike cheated on her). The kid doesn’t get it. She just urges him to go say he’s sorry. And he sits there with a lump in his throat unable to explain why that won’t work – when it’s what he tells her to do when she messes up – and the whole time the little girl is tugging on his hand and crying, trying to get him to go do it, trying desperately to fix things.

Aw, c’mon. That gets ya right there, doesn’t it?

If he is swallowing hard and sniffling back a runny nose, it reads differently than if he is being “strong” and stoic, but in MY mind, he’s crying his eyes out. That’ll affect my word choices and paint a slightly different scene. I might not be so descriptive; in fact, I’ll probably be very plain because I don’t notice a pretty sunset when I’m feeling down, I just notice it’s getting dark. That’s when I tell, don’t show.


The rules of writing are guidelines at best. If you dig deep with your emotions and do your best to communicate that feeling to your readers, they’ll get it. Don’t worry about doing it wrong! Paint a scene then go back and highlight it. Add the colors of emotion that darken or lighten. Your computer won’t care that you had to redo it a few times, but adopt the scene’s mood when you do, and use that to make every word express that mood, whether physically or emotionally.

You’ll see a big difference in your writing when you do.

Want me to critique the first chapter of your story? SEND IT. Hit the Contact Me button and, you know, contact me. I’ll see what I can do.

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He looks like he knows something, carrying that computer around, doesn’t he?
He looks like he knows something, carrying that computer around, doesn’t he?

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi” – yeah, we know. We’re trying to convince him to change that title – check out his other works here and check back often for interesting stuff.

Published by Dan Alatorre AUTHOR

USA Today bestselling author Dan Alatorre has 50+ titles published in more than 120 countries and over a dozen languages.

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