3 Ways to “Show, Don’t Tell” Emotions In Your Story

Your humble host.
your humble host

I’m just gonna say it:

You give too much away in your stories.

 

And with emotions, you do it most often.

Why do you do that?

Today we’re gonna see the old writing adage/admonishment “Show, Don’t Tell.” You hear it said a lot, but who gives examples on how to do it? Me, that’s who. Here are some pointers using emotions, which are also hard to do in stories. It’s a twofer. Because I love you guys.

In Version 2, we mostly TELL the reader what the characters is feeling. That’s 2, so it comes second. You’ll wanna read it first. READ 2 FIRST.

In Version 1, which comes first, we SHOWED the actions that cause a reader to conclude the character feels a certain way.

Bring up the two versions in different windows and see them side by side. Then it won’t matter which comes first.

How to Show, not Tell

  • What are the physical manifestations your character can do/exude to have a “disinterested third party” – your reader – conclude the character feels a certain way? Write those things. That’s the first way.
  • The second way is to edit to add more beats/short descriptions where necessary, and to specifically choose words that go with the feeling you are trying to evoke. Cuddly goes with puppy, not snake. What emotions are you going for? Rewrite to use words that exaggerate that emotion. Readers want a little drama in their story. Sometimes a lot of drama.
  • Third, have the character act or another character react the way you want the reader to feel.
    • Scared? Have them hold their breath, the hairs stand up on the back of their neck, step backwards – and  trip over stuff as they do, with their hand on their mouth stifling their screams. Don’t just scream. Draw it out a little.
    • In love? Get gooey with it! Stroke the side of his face and gaze into his eyes as that amazing smile flashes across his face, the one that makes your toes curl. You get the idea. Not just a smile, an amazing smile. Unless every word of your story is gooey, it’ll work. If every word is gooey, it’ll be a mess. Don’t be messy.

See?


Word Weaver logi FINAL trimmed
Enter my amazingly great writing contest! Over $400 in VALUABLE PRIZES and the first 50 entries get writing input from ME. 

Click HERE to enter now!


Put your reader in the mindset by having your characters there.

What would your character see? Write that, to “show” it.

Your story will be the better for it.

Now, some actual EXAMPLES.

From a real book. Real writing.

The SAME chapter, in its “before and after” versions – with AFTER coming first and labeled as “reworked.”

To view them best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.


Chapter 7 “reworked”

I accepted Mrs. Hill’s offer to relocate Sophie upstairs to the meeting room while we waited for Mallory to return.

It was a large, open space, created as an afterthought when they were adding onto the winery’s main building. Its openings looked over the tasting room and down to the front hallway. Conversations below echoed up the steps or bounced off the tasting room walls, landing in the meeting room for any willing ears to hear.

I laid out some sweaters on the floor for Sophie to nap on, then I took a seat at the meeting room table and looked over our provisions: goldfish crackers and cheese sticks.

The far window let in the sunlight and the magnificent view. With the sun still high in the sky, the rows of vines lit up like soldiers at attention before me. Tragedy out one window, beauty out the other. What a strange day.

I sat down and gazed at my slumbering daughter. Beauty was here, too—the very picture of a sleeping angel. I closed my eyes and shook my head. My little sleeping angel. How close she had come to becoming one today.

Pressing myself into the chair, I folded my arms and let my sighed. You can do everything right. You can teach them to look both ways when they cross the street. Teach them to study hard and stay away from drugs. And still some guy in a parking lot can take them away in an instant.

I didn’t know it would be so hard, this whole parenting thing. Mallory and I were almost three full years into it, and we were still just starting to figure things out.

Shifting in my chair, I thought about sleep. Then I heard someone on the steps, coming up toward us.

I jumped up from the chair to alert them before they woke up Sophie. She needed her sleep, and even if she didn’t, I needed her to sleep. Five hours of a bored, whining child would be five hours too many today.

A woman appeared, looking to be about thirty, with long hair and glasses. Holding a finger up to my lips, I motioned over to where Sophie lay sleeping on the floor. The woman nodded.

“Do y’all need anything?” She whispered.

“No, we’re fine.” I said. “Thanks.”

“Really, can I get you something to drink? A Coke, maybe, or some milk for your little girl?”

It was going to be a long wait. No reason to make it harder than it had to be. “Sure. That would be great. Thanks.”

The woman smiled and disappeared down the steps, returning a few minutes later.

“If you’d like a sandwich from our floor cooler, or anything in the tasting room,” she whispered, Mrs. Hill would be happy to take care of it for you.”

Mrs. Hill would. Not Mr. Hill, I bet.

“That’s very nice, thank you.” I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Tasting wine samples was probably a bad idea at this point.

“You folks weren’t hurt in the accident, were you?”

“No, no.” I cracked the soda can open and licked the spray off my thumb. “We were very lucky.”

She nodded, folding her hands in her lap and glancing about. She leaned forward like she was holding her breath—or holding in a secret.

She seemed to want to say more, and for some reason, I wanted her to.

I nodded toward my sleeping daughter and gave the woman my best smile. “You know, I haven’t eaten all day. I could really use one of those sandwiches.”

The woman stood. “Let’s move to where we won’t bother your girl.”

At the bottom of the stairs were the offices, but by now they were empty. From there, I could listen to hear if Sophie woke up, and find out what this woman wanted to say. I lagged behind while she walked on ahead to get a sandwich out of the tasting room cooler.

When she returned, I held out my hand. “I’m Doug.”

She cast her eyes downward, blushing. “I’m Janice.”

I took a bite from the sandwich. “Mm, this is good, ma’am.”

She smiled again.

“Do you work here, Janice?”

“Part time. I help out. I’m a friend of the family.”

“You’re a friend of Mrs. Hill?” Janice seemed too young for that. Mrs. Hill looked to be in her late sixties, maybe older.

“We’re neighbors. I used to babysit for them.”

While I was not usually predisposed to small talk, I was aware enough to know when somebody wanted to get something off their chest. I knew the look.

I always had what was referred to as an honest face, which is, as they say, a blessing and a curse. People would tell me things they would never tell anybody else in a million years. That came in handy from time to time. They might expect you to keep those deep dark secrets. That was a little harder. One of my first jobs out of college was as a member of an investigative team of auditors. I was basically a number cruncher, but I sat through the required classes on conducting investigative interviews. It boiled down to this: when somebody wants to talk, shut up and let them.

And Janice seemed to want to talk.

As a friend and neighbor, she had known the Hills for quite a while. As a part time employee of the winery, she was familiar with their work habits. Babysitting gave her more personal knowledge of their home life than most neighbors or friends, and she was on hand to notice when work life crossed over into home life, or vice versa. Like when the winery would experience a mysterious inventory shrinkage—business talk for employee theft of wine—but extra cases miraculously appeared in the basement of the house for a party. Or were sold for cash to friends.

She was also aware of Mr. Hill’s newest habit of coming home for an early lunch, already drunk.

Mostly, she noticed the changes in Mr. Hill’s attitude.

“He got hurt in a car wreck a year or so ago, right?” I asked, wrapping up the crumbs from the sandwich in a paper napkin. “Maybe that—”

Janice’s eyes flashed. “Oh.” She sighed, shaking her head. “It started way before then.”

Peering down the hallway, she folded her hands in her lap again, letting her voice fall to a whisper. “He has been getting worse and worse for years. I noticed it a while back. Years ago. Him being angry all the time, yelling at employees . . . Mr. Hill never used to be like that.”

Her eyes widened. “Yelling at Mrs. Hill! Right here in the winery, in front of everybody. That poor, sweet dear.” She drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Mrs. Hill never did anything to deserve that. She is just the nicest lady.”

I nodded. “And it kept getting worse?”

“Oh.” She rolled her eyes. “It sure did. Every day was a little worse than the next. He got so bad people started quitting.” She lifted a hand, counting on the fingers. “The managers, some good employees that had worked here for years . . . Good people. Family friends. They’d be afraid to be here, afraid of what he’d do.”

I leaned forward, curious to know more about the man who could have killed my daughter that morning and who seemed to have no regrets about what he’d done to the people he hit with his truck. “What kinds of things would he do?”

“Well . . .” Janice said, catching herself. She looked down and adjusted her chair. “Mostly just temper tantrums and such.”

I sat back, putting my hands in my pockets. It seemed as though Janice had run her course, so I tried to think of something conciliatory and reassuring to say.

“We all saw the senility coming, getting worse each year. Some suspected Alzheimer’s, and that may have been part of it.” She look at me squarely. There was a twinge of fear in her eyes. “But the drinking and the pain killers played their role, too.”

I watched but said nothing. My job was to let her talk. She seemed to need to.

She knitted her fingers in her lap, glancing around the empty room. “It’s like the devil came to sit with him one day out in the fields, and never left. Like evil itself just grew and grew in him like a weed, until Mr. Hill—the nice Mr. Hill we that all knew—was gone. And this angry old man who hated everyone was left in his place.”

Janice stood up to leave. “He’s running this place into the ground you know. Poor Mrs. Hill is always having to go behind him and clean up his mistakes.”

“Alzheimer’s can be—”

She shook her head, raising a hand to her temple. “This one today was a doozie.”

I went for one last thing. The obvious. “Was he drunk?”

Janice looked at me silently for a long time. She took a step backwards away from the window into the shadows, nodding.

“Wow, that early in the day, huh?”

She nodded again. “Every day. But it’s not just that. He can’t control that truck of his. Not anymore. His hands can’t work the controls very well, and his legs get spasms. He can’t manage them at all some days.”

She looked across to the hall window and the parking lot, retreating further into the coming darkness, her eyes alight with fear. “He sure couldn’t manage it today.”

I sat up and rested my elbows on my knees. “You know, Janice, Mr. Hill said something curious to me. After the wreck, when I came in, I saw him standing in the hall. I didn’t know he was the owner. I thought he was just an employee who did deliveries. He was just standing there staring out the window.”

The setting sun cast long shadows over the room. Janice’s eyes were the only part of her visible against the darkening meeting room walls.

Taking a deep breath, I went on. “I asked him if he was okay, and that kind of snapped him out of a trance. Then he said the strangest thing.”

Janice gripped one hand with the other, saying nothing.

“He said something like ‘people need to learn to get out of the way.’” I let that sink in. “Saying something like that about people you had almost killed. It seemed very odd. Very . . . inappropriate. Misplaced. You know?”

She nodded. “I’d say his mind is going, but it isn’t.”

“Do you think there will be a lawsuit?”

Janice stifled a sarcastic laugh. She walked to the doorway, stopping to look up and down the hallway. Then she turned back to me. “Maybe,” she whispered. “But it’ll never go anywhere.” She looked at me, shaking her head.  “His friends on the police force will see to that.” Then she turned and disappeared down the hall.

Sophie starting to make noise upstairs. “Daddy?”

Climbing the stairs two at a time, I reached my daughter before she could become frightened by waking up in a strange room.


Original Chapter 7

I accepted Mrs Hill’s offer to relocate Savvy upstairs into the meeting room while we waited for Michele to return.

It was a large, open space, created as an afterthought when they were adding onto the winery’s main building. It had openings that looked over onto the tasting room floor and down to the hallway. Conversations echoed up the steps and bounced off the tasting room walls.

I laid out some sweaters on the floor for Savvy to nap on. Then I positioned myself at the meeting room table and looked over our provisions: goldfish crackers and cheese sticks.

I walked to the window and took in the view. The sun was still high in the sky, and the rows of vines lined up before me. Tragedy out one window; beauty out the other. What a strange day.

I sat down and took in my sleeping daughter. Beauty was here, too; the very picture of a sleeping angel. I closed my eyes and shook my head with a tired sigh. A little sleeping angel.

How close she had come to becoming one today.  

 

I leaned back in the chair, resting my eyes. You can do everything right. You can teach them to look both ways when they cross the street. Teach them to study hard and stay away from drugs.

And still some guy in a parking lot can take them away in an instant.

 

I didn’t know it would be so hard, this whole parenting thing. Michele and I were almost three full years into it, and we were still just starting to figure things out.

I shifted in my chair and thought about sleep. Then I heard someone on the steps, coming up toward us.

I got up from his chair to alert them before they woke up Savvy. It was a woman, about thirty, with long hair and glasses.

Holding a finger up to my lips, I motioned over to where Savvy lay sleeping on the floor. The woman nodded.

“Do y’all need anything?” she whispered.

“No, we’re fine.” I said. “Thanks.”

“Really, can I get you something to drink? A Coke, maybe, or some milk for your little girl?”

I acquiesced. It was going to be a long wait; why not make the best of it. “Sure, I said warmly. “That would be great. Thanks.”

The woman smiled and disappeared down the steps, returning a few minutes later.

“If you’d like a sandwich from our floor cooler, or anything in the tasting room,” she whispered, Mrs Hill would be happy to take care of it for you.”

Mrs Hill would. Not Mr Hill.

 

“That’s very nice, thank you.” I said. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But tasting wine samples was probably a bad idea at this point.

“You folks weren’t hurt in the accident, were you?”

“No, no,” I answered. “We were very lucky.”

She nodded. She seemed to want to say more. I looked over at my sleeping daughter. “You know, I haven’t eaten all day. I could really use one of those sandwiches.” The woman smiled. “Let’s move to where we won’t wake her up,” I said.

At the bottom of the stairs were the offices, but by now they were empty. From there, I could listen to hear if Savvy woke up, and find out what this woman wanted to say. I stayed behind while she walked on ahead to get a sandwich out of the tasting room cooler.

“I’m Dan,” I said when she returned. I leaned in to receive her name in reply.

“I’m Janice,” she said.

I took a bite from the sandwich. “Mm, this is good, ma’am.” Janice smiled again.

“Do you work here, Janice?”

“Part time. I help out. I’m a friend of the family.”

“You’re a friend of Mrs Hill?” I asked. Janice seemed too young for that. Mrs Hill looked to be in her 60’s.

“We’re neighbors. I used to babysit for them.”

While I was not usually predisposed to small talk, I was aware enough to know when somebody wanted to get something off their chest. I knew the look; I always had what was referred to as an honest face, so people would tell me things that they would never tell anybody else in a million years. That came in handy from time to time. One of my first jobs out of college was as a member of an investigative team of auditors. I was basically a numbers cruncher, but I sat through the required classes on conducting “investigative interviews.” It boiled down to this: when somebody wants to talk, shut up and let them.

And Janice seemed to want to talk.

As a friend and neighbor, she had known the Hills for quite a while. As a part time employee of the winery, she was familiar with their work habits. As a babysitter of theirs, she had a little more personal knowledge of their home life than most neighbors or friends, and she was on hand to notice when work life crossed over into home life, or vice versa. Like when the winery would experience a mysterious “inventory shrinkage” – business talk for employee theft of wine – but extra cases miraculously appeared in the basement of the house for a party, or were sold for cash to friends.

She was also aware of Mr Hill’s newest habit of coming home for an early lunch, already drunk.

Mostly, she noticed the changes in Mr Hill’s attitude.

“He got hurt in a car wreck a year or so ago, right?” I asked helpfully. “Maybe that-”

Janice flashed me a look that said don’t be fooled.

 

“Oh,” she sighed, shaking her head, “it started way before then.”

She whispered. “He has been getting worse and worse for years. I noticed it a while back. Years ago. Him being angry all the time, yelling at employees… Mr Hill never used to be like that.”

Then Janice’s eyes widened. “Yelling at Mrs Hill! Right here in the winery, in front of everybody. That poor sweet dear.”

She paused. “Mrs Hill never did anything to deserve that. She is just the nicest lady.” I nodded slowly in agreement.

“And it kept getting worse?”

“It sure did,” Janice replied. “Every day was a little worse than the next. He got so bad people started quitting. The managers, some good employees that had worked here for years… Good people. Family friends. They’d be afraid to be here, afraid of what he’d do.”

That surprised me. “What kinds of things would he do?”

“Well…” Janice said, catching herself. She looked down and adjusted her chair. “Mostly just temper tantrums and such.”

I sat back. It sounded like Janice had run her course.

“We all saw the senility coming, getting worse each year. Some suspected Alzheimer’s, and that may have been part of it, but the drinking and the pain killers played their role, too.”

Janice look at me squarely. There was a twinge of fear in her eyes.

“It’s like the devil came to sit with him one day out in the fields, and never left. Like evil itself just grew and grew in him like a weed, until Mr Hill – the nice Mr Hill we that all knew – was gone. And this angry old man who hated everyone was left in his place.”

Janice stood up to leave. “He’s running this place into the ground you know. Poor Mrs Hill is always having to go behind him and clean up his mistakes.”

She shook her head. “This one today was a doozie.”

I went for one last thing. “Was he drunk?”

Janice looked at me silently for a long time. Then she nodded.

“Wow, that early in the day, huh?”

She nodded again. “Every day. But it’s not just that. He can’t control that truck of his. Not anymore. His hands can’t work the controls very well, and his legs get spasms. He can’t manage them at all some days.”

She looked across to the hall window and the parking lot. “He sure couldn’t manage it today.”

Now I spoke. “You know, Janice, Mr Hill said something curious to me. After the wreck, when I came in, I saw him standing in the hall. I didn’t know he was the owner. I thought he was just an employee who did deliveries for them. He was just standing there looking out the window.”

I went on. “I asked him if he was okay, and that kind of snapped him out of a trance. Then he said the strangest thing.”

Janice listened.

“He said something like ‘people need to learn to get out of the way.’”

I let that sink in. “Saying something like that about people you had almost killed. It seemed very odd. Very… inappropriate. Misplaced. You know?”

Janice nodded. “I’d say his mind is going, but it isn’t.”

“Do you think there will be a lawsuit?”

Janice stifled a sarcastic laugh. She walked to the doorway, stopping to look up and down the hallway. Then she turned back to me. “Maybe,” she whispered. “But it’ll never go anywhere.” She looked at me, shaking her head.  “His friends on the police force will see to that.” Then she turned and disappeared down the hall.

I heard Savvy starting to make noise upstairs.

“Daddy?”

I went up the stairs two at a time, to get there before she became frightened by waking up in a strange room.


ANALYSIS

Okay, aside from the show/tell stuff, we have to ask:

  • Did Janice gave up the info too easily and
  • Why did she tell Doug all that anyway?

Doug should ask her why she did, but he kinda told us. People trust him. But Janice – and her name is going to change because I used that name for a key character in The Navigators – needs to probably tell him why, maybe to confirm what he thinks, and maybe to go 180 and surprise him.

“Janice, why did you tell me all that?”

“I don’t know. You have an honest face.”

or

“Janice, why did you tell me all that?”

“Somebody has to stop that  man. Nobody in this town will.”

Hmm. Kinda liking the second one.

Because this story has lots of surprises.

So should yours.

Now:

head shot
your humble host

Let me have your comments.

Please share and reblog these as we go. Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

Available in paperback and audio book, too!

5 thoughts on “3 Ways to “Show, Don’t Tell” Emotions In Your Story

What do YOU think? Let me hear from ya.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s