Posted On July 19, 2013 by Print This Post

Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell – Angela Ackerman

If you’re a writer, I’m betting you’ve been to Angela Ackerman’s website The Bookshelf Muse. She and partner Becca Puglisi run a wonderful blog, offering authors a wealth of information on descriptions, emotions and settings. And more!

Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell

Angela AckermanWriting compelling emotional moments is the lifeblood of any story and the key to building a relationship between characters and readers. Yet steering clear of the show-don’t-tell pitfalls requires practice and skill. Here’s a quick look at three challenges writers face when creating the right balance of emotional description.

Telling

Telling is a big issue, especially when writers are still getting to know their characters. Often they do not yet have enough insight into the hero’s personality and their motivation to really be able to describe how they feel in a unique way. Instead of using a vivid and authentic mix of body language, thoughts, dialogue and visceral sensations, writers convey emotion  in broad, telling strokes:

EXAMPLE:

Bill had to steel himself emotionally before entering the church. He’d managed to avoid his family for seven years, but his father’s funeral wasn’t something he could blow off. Anger and jealousy welled inside him as he thought of his two older brothers, the ones who always impressed Dad by being just like him: athletic, manly, hard. Now he would have to face them, and hear once again how he was a failure, a disappointment, an abomination that should have done the world a favor and hung himself from the Jackson family tree.

What’s wrong with this passage?

While the above alludes to an unhealthy relationship between brothers and conveys that Bill is the family misfit, the emotions are TOLD to the reader.

Bill had to steel himself emotionally… What does that look like? Does he sneak a slug of whiskey in his car before going in? Shuffle around on the church step, tugging at his starched cuffs?  Something else? With emotion, the reader should always get a clear image of how the character is expressing their feelings.

Anger and jealousy welled inside him… This again is telling, simply by naming the emotions. What does that anger and jealousy feel like? Is his pulse throbbing so loud he can barely think? Are his thoughts boiling with brotherly slurs that show his jealousy: dad’s golden children, his perfect prodigy, etc. Does his chest feel stuffed full of broken glass, and with each thrum of the church organ, the pain drives itself deeper?

Showing and Telling

Another common snag is showing the character’s feelings (thoughts, actions, body language, visceral sensations, etc.) but then adding some telling to make sure the reader ‘got it.’ This often happens when a writer doesn’t have confidence in their own abilities to get emotion across to the reader, or they question whether they’ve shown the character’s feelings strongly enough for the situation.

 EXAMPLE:

The Emotion ThesaurusDean Harlow finally called Tammy’s name and Lacy’s breath hitched. Her daughter crossed the stage in her rich purple robe, smiling and thrusting her arm out for the customary handshake. Warmth blurred Lacy’s vision and she swiped at the tears, unwilling to miss a second of the graduation ceremony. Her calloused fingers scraped beneath her eyelids, a reminder of long hours at the laundry, all to ensure Tammy would have opportunities she herself never did. 

When her daughter accepted her diploma, Lacy shot out of her seat, clapping and cheering. She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. 

What’s wrong with his passage?

Emotion is shown clearly through Lacy’s hitching breath, the warm rush signaling tears, her rapt attention and then finally jumping up to cheer her daughter on. But that last line: She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. This unnecessary explanation of Lacy’s happiness and pride is like hammering a nail long after it’s flush with the board.  In the book, Description by Monica Wood, there’s a great rule of writing called RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. So when it comes to emotion, remember RUE.

Over Showing

Over showing is when a writer gets caught up in the moment and goes too far by showing everything. Too much emotional description can slow the pace of the scene, create purple prose or clichés, and come across as melodramatic.

EXAMPLE:

Finn huddled behind the rusted oil drum, dripping with cold sweat as she tried to control her loud, rasping breath. The sound of Alex scraping the crowbar along the warehouse’s cement floor turned her heart into a jackhammer. A scream built up in her throat and she clamped her teeth tight, converting it into a nearly soundless whimper. Her body trembled and shuddered in the dark, and a cascade of thoughts piled up like shoreline debris– the odd things he said, the strange gifts and creepy poems, his interest in seeing blood—why didn’t these things didn’t send off air raid sirens in her head before tonight? 

What’s wrong with this passage?

In some ways, this is a great moment showing fear. Body language, thoughts and visceral sensations all work to bring about intensity, but because there is so much of it, it feels overblown. Emotion doesn’t just build here…it roars. As a result, clichés form (the jackhammer heartbeat) and purple prose emerges from too many fanciful ideas (cascading thoughts, shoreline debris, air raid sirens, etc.) The combination of too much description creates the flavor of melodrama, which can cause the reader to disengage. Showing is great, but in moderation. Sometimes an author can say more with less.

 

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YOUR TURN: Do you struggle with showing your character’s emotion? Let me know in the comments—maybe I can help!

Join us on Monday for Editor Christine Pride’s post on Drive Them Wild – what makes readers fall in love with a book

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Bio: Angela Ackerman writes on the dark side of Middle Grade and Young Adult and is the co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. When she isn’t blogging at The Bookshelf Muse or creating new writing tools,  she’s carefully deleting her browser history and pretending to live the life of a normal, quiet Canadian. Find her on Facebook or Twitter, and stay up to date on new writing tools, resources and writing tips by signing up for her newsletter.

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41 Responses to “Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell – Angela Ackerman”

  1. Morning Angela!

    I’m totally guilty of the middle one – showing AND telling. =) Something I definitely need to work on. I have a tendency to over-explain, not good!

    Another problem I have – it’s hard to use all of the senses. I find I rarely use smelling or taste. I usually try to go back and layer it in, but it’s something that doesn’t seem to come naturally in my writing.

    Great post today – thanks so much for joining us at RU!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | July 19, 2013, 8:15 am
    • Showing and telling was my downfall as well! I would hand a book over to Becca and the critique would be full of RUE comments, lol.

      I think it takes time for us to gain confidence in our showing skills. Show and tell relies a lot on judgement. We know how important it is to convey the emotional experience to the reader ti create empathy, and it is easy to go too far in order to make sure they “get it.” Even in best selling fiction, I see authors who fall prey to showing AND then also telling.

      One great thing about sensory description is that using more of the 5 senses is really just about practice. The more we force ourselves to incorporate smells and sounds, etc. the more automatic it becomes. IF you get stuck, try the Setting Thesaurus on my blog. Becca and I list out smells, sounds, tastes, textures and sights for over 100 different fictional settings. :)

      A big thanks to RU for the invite to post! I am a long time lurker and social sharer, so it’s very neat to be “officially” hanging out here!

      Happy writing!

      Posted by angelaackerman | July 19, 2013, 8:51 am
  2. I’m a proud owner of The Emotion Thesaurus and have recommended to all of my fellow writer friends. It’s such a wonderful resource that helps a writer brainstorm ways to demonstrate the emotions of a character. Thank you Angela, and Becca, for creating this invaluable guide! It has been such a tremendous help to me!

    Posted by Reese Ryan | July 19, 2013, 8:40 am
    • Thank you! I am so glad it’s a good tool for you. When Becca and I started it on our blog, we were amazed to see how many people struggled with the same issues we did. I’m glad we listened to our readers and turned it into a book so we can support more writers as they write emotion!

      Posted by angelaackerman | July 19, 2013, 11:54 am
  3. I definitely have issues with telling emotion instead of showing it. When I read excellent articles like this, the concept of showing makes sense, but I try to incorporate it into my writing, I fall flat. :-(

    Posted by Caroline | July 19, 2013, 11:13 am
    • Caroline, I think we all feel this way at some point or another. :) Practice is really what helps, and also when you read, pay attention to how the pros do it. When an emotional moment comes along, stop and reread how they got it across to the readers, and how it made you feel. I found this was super helpful for me to see a live example! :)

      Posted by angelaackerman | July 19, 2013, 11:56 am
  4. Wow. Fantastic post! I find that I have been guilty of all three of these at one time or another. Pointing these mistakes out has been super helpful, so now I know what to look for and how to fix it. Thanks for your insight!

    Posted by Jessica Flory | July 19, 2013, 11:38 am
    • Hi Jessica,

      So happy this helps! I know we hear about show don’t tell until we’re deadened to it, but it really is harder than it seems to find a balance for as we write. With practice it gets easier! Thanks for commenting!

      Posted by angelaackerman | July 19, 2013, 11:58 am
  5. Great post. I’m working through exactly these issues with one of my editing clients. It’s not easy to explain the more nuanced aspects of show vs. tell. Thanks for the help.

    Posted by PatriciaW | July 19, 2013, 12:29 pm
  6. I think I’ve been guilty of all of these at times. Though I think #2 is the one I do the most. It’s getting better, but I know I still do it. I love this book though, it’s a great tool. I can’t remember which author commented on it, but I ran right out and got one.

    Posted by Stephanie | July 19, 2013, 12:32 pm
  7. Wow. Your examples were spot on. I didn’t really see the issues until you pointed them out. I’m definitely buying that thesaurus!

    Posted by Tracy Krauss | July 19, 2013, 12:41 pm
    • Tracy, glad the examples helped. I think sometimes we might read a telling moment, or some showing &explaining, and we don’t notice it at all. Usually this is because it only happens once or twice. But when it happens frequently…that is when we start to become aware of it.

      Hope you find the ET a good brainstorming tool!

      Angela

      Posted by angelaackerman | July 19, 2013, 1:55 pm
  8. Hi Angela,

    Show vs. tell is a game when I’m writing. One is always the winner. I try to keep things even, but sometimes it’s a battle.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | July 19, 2013, 3:23 pm
  9. Hi Angela,

    I’m grinning because some workshops I’ve taken emphasize loading up on the emotion, which includes lots of sensory and use of analogies.

    You’ve given us excellent examples of why it’s distracting to the reader. Also, I’ve read many books in which the author employs tons of description and sensory. Even if it’s done well, I just want to get on with the story.

    Excellent post! Thanks so much for blogging with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 19, 2013, 5:18 pm
    • Sensory description and emotion is good, but just like ice cream, too much is never a good idea. We have to find the happy medium where we are pulling the reader into the character’s experience without pounding them over the head. ;)

      Posted by angelaackerman | July 20, 2013, 1:21 pm
  10. I’m often guilty of #3. Thankfully my crit partner is aware of my tendency to go overboard, so it’s always on my to-fix list during revisions.

    Posted by Swati Chavda | July 19, 2013, 5:50 pm
  11. Sorry I’m late – this is a fabulous post! I should get this tattooed: RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain.

    Failing that, I need to print it up and stick it on my monitor. GREAT advice!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 20, 2013, 1:43 am
  12. Yep: I show and tell too, and I still struggle with this when I go back and revise. Fortunately, I’ve got a keen-eyed editorial agent who is ever-vigilant and won’t let me get away with it. And I’ve got you, and your perceptive, useful posts. Thank you.

    Posted by MaryWitzl | July 20, 2013, 4:53 am
  13. Great tips Angela! I’m totally guilty of #2 far too often! Although I’m getting better, RUE will be my new mantra :)

    Posted by Jemi Fraser | July 20, 2013, 8:14 am
  14. Those are some excellent points, Ange. :)

    Posted by KittyB78 | July 20, 2013, 9:43 am
  15. When I first got published, the editor told me that I was like the writer who wrote without words cause I was so determined not to over-tell

    Posted by Lucie | July 21, 2013, 10:02 pm
    • Lucie, I find I am a sparse describer too! However, it isn’t the amount of words we use, but the way we use them, right? A lot can be shown if we focus on a few powerful fingernail type details, painting a picture. :)

      Posted by angelaackerman | July 22, 2013, 12:23 am
  16. I do struggle some with this, so I appreciate your insight. Thanks so much!

    Posted by Karen Lange | July 22, 2013, 8:39 am
  17. I try not to tell anything that could be inferred by my characters’ behaviors and dialogue. I don’t like it when writers tell me what’s obvious to me.

    Posted by Diane Carlisle | July 22, 2013, 9:15 am
    • Yes the reader definitely doesn’t want to be coddled. It can be difficult to find that magical point of showing just enough though. Critique partners are so important with this part of the process, because they can judge how we’ve done and be objective. :) Happy writing!

      Posted by angelaackerman | July 24, 2013, 11:14 am
  18. It’s amazing how we all seem to struggle with one of these problems. Thanks so much for the great examples, Angela!

    Posted by Becca puglisi | July 23, 2013, 6:39 am
  19. Love the RUE acronym. Let’s all get RUE tattoos.

    Posted by Leslie S Rose | July 25, 2013, 1:45 pm
  20. Three terrific examples!

    Challenge … can you give an idea of how you would have written those, using Show instead of Tell?

    Posted by Genevieve Graham (@GenGrahamAuthor) | July 26, 2013, 8:31 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Description is the downfall of many a writer. Natalie Whipple discusses how to use physical description, while Angela Ackerman outlines 3 common problems with show and tell emotional description. [...]

  2. […] and toss a few links your way. First up, you can find me over at Romance University, talking about Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell. If critique feedback indicates you “tell” the reader your character’s emotions, […]

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