Tell me, don’t show me your characters’ emotions.

I have written other posts criticizing common bits of advice given to writers, and I have in fact hinted that I believe the emperor to all of them is naked, so here it is: Show, don’t tell. What is it good for? Not much really.

There are also some elephant-in-the-room-sized clues hinting that all this Show, Don’t Tell thing may be, at best, platitudes, and at worst, nonsense. First of all, the entire history of human literature. Pretty much everything written before the last 100 years was 90% Telling, with Showing sparkled here and there to enhance or highlight certain key passages.

Second, when we tell stories to each other in real life, whether made up or not, we er.. well, tell them. Despite presenting itself as natural and direct, “Showy” writing is cumbersome and unnatural, padding out perfectly fine sentences and with a fixation on trivial details that can easily stop the flow of a story. If you are telling your friends about how a guy you know “got terribly angry,” I doubt anybody would stop you to tell you “yes, that’s all fine and good, but don’t tell me he was terribly angry. Show me his anger, was he clenching his fists or not? I can’t really see his anger otherwise.” Apparently, however, that’s how anger has to be explained to avoid the sin of “telling.”

Recently I began reading two e-books about this subject. Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting it) by Janice Hardy and Show, Don’t Tell: How to write vivid descriptions, handle backstory, and describe your characters’ emotions by Sandra Gerth. Both are Amazon bestsellers. The former is better, and I will mostly quote the latter in this post.

Both are surprisingly similar, though, so much that for a moment I thought the second had plagiarized the first. In the space of ten or fifteen pages, both authors give very similar or equal examples, mostly about “showing” anger and how saying that someone “walked slowly” is bad writing (which may be true, but for other reasons unrelated to how showy or telly it is,) in fact, both compare Showing with Movies, as if movie-like writing was inherently better. Then I realized that the more probable explanation for this coincidence is that both are copying a third, unreferenced source, which makes sense because all online articles on Showing and Telling read the same so they are all probably plagiarizing each other.

You may have noticed that I have not defined or explained Showing and Telling. That’s actually because I’m not sure I get what they mean or, rather, I’m not sure the distinction actually makes sense or is that relevant. Anyway, this is how the second book starts to define the two concepts:

Telling means that you —the author—give your readers conclusions and interpretations; you tell them what to think instead of letting them think for themselves.

Showing means that you provide your readers with enough concrete, vivid details so that they can draw their own conclusions.”

That’s a strawman the size of a planet-destroying asteroid. In fact, that’s what I believe “Telling” has become, just a strawman to sell books on writing. Later, the author claims that “Telling doesn’t evoke images in the reader’s mind,” which is clearly false. She gives many examples of “Telling writing” and although it may be true that they don’t evoke much, that’s simply because they are examples of purposefully awful writing, not because they tell but don’t show. Here’s the first:

Tina was angry.

This is telling. The author is handling the readers a conclusion.

Tina slammed the door shut and stormed into the kitchen. “What the hell were you thinking?”

This is showing. It gives the readers the concrete actions and the character’s dialogue so that they can come to the conclusion that Tina is angry without the author stating it flat-out.

First of all, the first sentence does evoke an image. Perhaps not a good one, but that’s because the sentence is short and pretty bad and there’s not much to go on with the information provided. But I do get a mental image of a person who is, well, angry. And how can you even compare a three-word sentence with two full sentences, including a line of dialogue, anyway? How is that even fair? And here’s the thing, they don’t even say the same things so any comparison should be meaningless.

This is a problem I keep seeing with these articles on Showing & Telling, they present you the “bad” Tell version, usually written by someone who is probably a 5-years-old, and then the better “Show” version, which is not only longer but also says many more things (and sometimes even different things.) The first states that someone is angry. That’s it. The second states that someone storms a room and says something—which is a whole lot of new information. And no, it’s not self-evident that the second version is about anger… it could be about fear or anxiety, so even at this simplest level, Showing fails. And who made this rule that says that these two types of sentences can’t go together? To me, this is perfectly fine writing:

An angry Tina slammed the door shut and stormed the room. “What the hell were you thinking?

Here are other examples:


Telling: It was obvious that he was trying to pick a fight.

Showing: “What did you just say?” Snarling, he stepped forward, right into John’s space.

I honestly don’t understand why these are juxtaposed; they are clearly stating different things. It’s not self-evident that the snarling man was trying to pick up a fight. The thing said to him could have been extremely and openly offensive. Or maybe he blew off for other reasons. There’s probably no way to “show” someone trying to pick up a fight, you have to state it, you have to Tell so. There are no specific facial expressions, body language, or verbal outburst that belong exclusively to the emotional state and behavior “looking for a fight.” And, again, you can mix the two:

“Like a rabbid animal, he had been longing for a fight the entire night. So when John answered back, he snarled and jumped at the opportunity.

“What did you say?” He yelled, stepping forward into John’s space.

Telling: She checked the man’s vital status.

Showing: She bent and placed two fingers on his neck. A faint pulse throbbed beneath her fingertips.

Yeah, well, the problem with the first is not that it tells but that it forgets to say what vitals were found, if any. The second, like many examples of “good” “Show writing,” is ungainly. No, you don’t have to specifically tell (show?) that the pulse throbbed beneath her fingertips. I believe readers are smart enough to know how a pulse is checked. “She checked the man’s vital status. It was faint, but he had a pulse,” is perfectly OK to me.

Telling: “Don’t lie to me,” she shouted angrily.

Showing: “Don’t lie to me, dammit.” She slammed her palm on the table.

First of all, nobody uses the word “angrily.” The only people who use it are writers writing about Showing & Telling. But most importantly, and I will go into that in a minute, have you noticed that all these examples of emotional descriptions in Showy writing are usually always about anger? There’s a reason for that.

Telling: It was cold.

Showing: She breathed into her hands to warm her numb fingers.

This may seem like a reasonable example, but not necessarily so. “It was cold.” works just fine if you don’t really need to add anything more to the rest of the paragraph or description. Also, if you ask someone how is the weather, “It is cold!” is a fine answer and sometimes you don’t need to know more. And, by the way, I’d seriously recommend adding “it was cold” somewhere in the second sentence. Otherwise, you have someone breathing into her hands for no apparent reason or you may infer wrong explanations (e.g. she had hurt her fingers.)

Telling: Tina looked as if she was going to cry.

Showing: Tina’s bottom lip started to quiver.

Despite the “Telling” sentences showed here being all strawmen, this one actually manages to be better than the Showing version. Nobody who is trying to describe sorrow or sadness would seriously write “her bottom lip started to quiver.” The only time bottom lips quiver is in animated cartoons when the exaggerated facial features of a character go all ; (((( and the mouth trembles like tectonic plates or Popeye’s biceps. Nobody in real life does that. And speaking of things nobody does:

Telling: When John left, Betty and Tina were relieved.

Showing: When the door closed behind John, Betty wiped her brow and Tina exhaled the breath she’d been holding.

You know who wipes the brow to express relief or holds breath when stressed? Sitcoms actors, because they have to exaggerate, which leads me to the first problem of the allegedly superior “Showing” writing:

  1. It makes everything look like a comedy.

Eyebrows dancing, mouths hanging open, hands flapping, doors being slammed, tables being pummeled by angry fists… That’s the fate of those who write following the Show, Don’t Tell guidelines.

Real-life emotions are subtle, so subtle most of our brain-power exists solely to process all that deluge of microfacial expressions, minute changes in tone of speech, and so on.

You can make hundreds of facial expressions, and if you want to describe them, you’ll have to tell the underlying emotions. There’s actually no way to just Show most human emotions. Which leads me to…

2. Showing in writing only works for the simplest emotions.

It’s not a coincidence that all the books and articles I have read about this subject give you the same example: anger. Sometimes fear; occasionally surprise. But that’s it. Being cold is also popular.

Can someone tell me how to “show” jealousy? Guilt? Rancor? Apprehension? Despondency? Vindictiveness? Dependency? Despair? Hope? Longing?

Now, if your characters’ emotional depth is that of a household pet, then yes, you can “show” their emotions by showing how open their mouths are or how much they wag their tails, I guess.

3. We have hundreds of words for emotional states for a reason

And that reason is that pretty much all human emotions can only be told, not shown. Imagine if masters of Horror like Lovecraft or Poe had believed they could only describe terror by showing it. Their stories would be absolute garbage.

“Yes, Mr. Lovecraft, all that about ‘despairing trepidations and abysmal elucubrations’ is all fine and dandy, but can you please SHOW it to me? Did the protagonist’s legs shake like overcooked cannelloni when he finally saw Cthulhu emerge from those stygian waters?”

If you write anything moderately complex, you’ll need to tell. You’ll need to put on your Narrator Hat, to let your Narrator Voice speak. You are not a camera recording people’s movements; you are a writer. Even the simplest feelings, like liking something, require some degree of telling. You can have an affinity for something, or an affection, an attraction, a bond, a leaning, a liking, a penchant, a preference, a predilection, or a weakness for that thing. And they don’t mean the same, and they certainly can’t be easily “shown.”

What about fear? You won’t go very far by writing that someone is trembling or has shaky legs if you want to talk about, among other things, fear, horror, misgivings, terror, scares, panics, frights, hysteria, apprehension, trepidation, worry, alarm, and anxiety.

Even with simple anger, you’ll need something better than clenching fists and slamming doors if you want to be an expert when talking about animus, distaste, dislike, ire, fury, aggressivity, odium, loathing, rancor, resentment, spite, vindictiveness, disgust, revulsion, repugnance, and wrath. To me, the idea that you can show all those emotions without actually having to reference them in some way sounds like nonsense.

And don’t even get me started on “sadness.” There are possibly a hundred different words for it and most of them can’t be shown at all since the symptoms are mostly internal, invisible, or we simply don’t have words to describe the subtle behavioral alterations that something like being bereft or wistful may imply. Sure, show all you want, give examples and dialogue, but you’ll probably have to flat-out state or at least elude to the specific emotion first.

And finally.

4.Human emotions are not snapshots

It’s not a coincidence that all these examples of Showing emotions are superficial and short-lived emotions. You can easily “show” them in a single sentence. But if a core emotion of a character is, let’s say, a broken heart and his wandering around the world afterward, that’s something that you build up through the entire book. The Show & Don’t Tell pedagogy assumes that sentences without context, cut off from the rest of the story, can be analyzed on its own and that they can, and should, show the entirety of the emotion like a clear-cut and well-defined object. But that’s now how writing works.

An emotional mood, state, or relationship is an accretion process. Sometimes it’s hinted, sometimes shown, sometimes told, sometimes it changes or it’s resolved. But this takes time. A whole story may be about a single emotion and how it mutates.

These dangling sentences I have shown are, at best, a warning against bad writing, but that’s it. Tell away; it may not be the best way to write, but it certainly seems better than the strange alternative of stunted emotions, dancing eyebrows, trembling legs, and quivering lips while slamming doors and trashing furniture.

4 thoughts on “Tell me, don’t show me your characters’ emotions.

    1. It’s like these people don’t even know the difference between movies and books.

      In movies, virtually everything is showing instead of telling, because it’s a visual medium. You can do some telling via a voiceover or by having a character recount a past event, but a little bit of that goes a long way, and too much is just bad craftsmanship.

      In books, it’s the other way around. Literally EVERYTHING in a book is telling and not showing, because words are the only tool you have, and telling is what words do. What “show not tell” really should be all about is using evocative language to good effect — knowing how AND when to use your telling skills to paint a picture, create a mood, set a scene, conjure an emotion, etc., and thereby immerse the reader in the narrative.

      The “show, don’t tell” shibboleth is what happens when people who don’t trust the power of the written word try to give writing advice.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Fantastic post. You know, even screenwriters don’t go with exaggerated gestures and stuff like they. Read some good screenplays: the language and “showing” tends to be far subtler than one might think.

    At the end of the day, books are not movies. Books are not visual.

    Like

  2. Anthony

    I think the reasoning behind the advice of “show don’t tell” is that plenty of authors start off wanting to make a movie, listen to all this advice about film-making, then realise they cannot and maybe never will write a screenplay that will actually be used for a production. What you end up with are, of course, movies written awkwardly onto paper.

    I remember back when I was a confused, hormone-addled teen who had terrible judgement. I had the brilliant idea to write fan-fiction, which of course got all the hate it deserved, but it was the wrong kind of hate. Not a distatse for the terrible pacing, the unfollowable plots or overall lack of a point to anything, no: I was actually telling the story and not impartially providing information on the superficial impressions of characters’ expressions and actions as they may (or may not) pertain to a series of happenings.

    Someone popular on the website decided (going by ~15 year old memories here) that: “When you write something, you should show, not tell. It should be like a movie; where you imagine the cinematography. Where is the camera pointing? What does everything look like? Who and what is in frame during dialogue? If it’s not like a movie playing inside your head, then you’re just doing it wrong!”

    And so everyone wrote overly descriptive fanfiction where nothing was clear, stories dragged on about practically nothing and paragraphs were dedicated to every nuance of a character’s appearance and accountrements. This is how you end up with 90% of everything out there.

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