Emotions can be one of the hardest things to convey through the show-not-tell rule sometimes. The show-not-tell rule is describing what a character is feeling, doing, or thinking, without just outright stating it. An example would be writing “her feet landed hard on the pavement, one after another, increasing her speed” instead of “she ran.” Another example would be “Juanita grabbed at the seams of her sweater and pulled the two sides across her body and hunched her shoulders, her eyes full of tears but her mouth smiling” instead of “Juanita was sad, but pretended not to be.” When the emotions are just stated instead of described, it makes it more difficult for the reader to feel the same things that the character is feeling. So here are a few of my tips on how to write character emotions.
1. Convey emotion through action.
Showing your character’s emotions through their actions can be done in so many ways. From covering their flushed faces to the way they hold their hands in different situations and from how they hold themselves to where they are standing in a busy room—these actions all describe a bit of the character’s emotions in the moment. In a short story I wrote in university, I describe someone who felt a little uncomfortable and nervous as pulling up his scarf and collar to hide his face. But this could also be described through someone holding one arm across their torso and rubbing their other arm or by a character standing off to the side of a busy room and looking around while keeping their head down.
Think about how other people you know act and how their bodies move in different situations and while dealing with different emotions. Then think about how you can relate those actions and emotions to your character.
2. Mention how your character’s voice changes when talking to different people.
Many people, when interacting with those who annoy them, speak with deeper voices and more hushed and snapped tones. Some people speak louder so that they drown out the voice of the other person.
A lot of people speak with higher voices when talking to people to whom they are attracted. To this day, when I hear Turner speak to someone other than me while he’s in a different room, I think it might be someone else speaking because his voice drops a little bit subconsciously.
With people who have hurt them, you character might speak with soft voices and stuttering because they don’t know how to interact with the person.
It varies a lot, depending on the people who are talking and what has happened between them in the past or if it’s their first time interacting. Go to a cafe or park and take notes on how the people you see interact. It can be a huge help when trying to write character interactions.
3. Mention how your character’s voice changes when in different situations.
There can be some overlap between this category and the previous one, but there are some differences.
For example, I am someone with social and general anxiety disorders and PTSD from a couple of car accidents I was in as a child. These can majorly change how I react in different situations. One thing that changes the most is my voice. Depending on the situation that is triggering my anxiety, I might start speaking in a really high voice. I might also repeat myself and start speaking much more quickly than I usually do. On other occasions, I might stop talking and just “mmm” until my panic attack is warded off or has finished.
Some people grow boisterous and confident when speaking in front of others or when hanging out in large groups. Other become soft-spoken and reserved. Some become stiff and speak in short sentences. And even other people just start rambling incoherently—like me.
If you need to, watch videos of people in different situations and pay attention to their voices. It can give you a good basis on how to convey emotion through show-not-tell.
4. Use facial features.
This is something that tends to be done, but not always to an extent that can convey the emotion as intended by the author. I do understand that this can vary from culture to culture as well, so please pay attention to cultural facial expressions and such while describing emotions through facial features.
Eyes can be described not just in colour, but also in emotion. Through how widely the eyes are opened to how the eyes are moving around, eyes alone can show a vast amount of emotion. Then, when you combine the eyes with eyebrows, mouths, cheeks, and even ears and chins, you have nearly endless possibilities for describing the emotions of your character.
There was a show called Lie to Me that dealt mostly with watching people’s expressions to see what they were really feeling, even when they were lying about their emotions. It is most certainly fictional, but some of the different expressions they use can be a great guide for conveying emotions in your story.
5. Use clothing, accessories, and makeup or how it’s worn to show what they are feeling.
This is something that completely slipped my mind until I was talking to my fiancé about how I didn’t like the last section of my blog post. But oh man, is he right about how much clothing can portray emotion.
There was a girl in my high school who almost always wore short sleeve, but she usually had them rolled or pushed up to her elbows. Whenever she got nervous, sad, or scared, she would pull her sleeves down over her hands.
Whenever I’m in a really good mood and feeling incredibly happy, I usually wear bright colours. When I’m feeling confident, I often wear a men’s shirt with either a skirt or a pair of skinny jeans and dark lipstick. When I am feeling sad, I usually opt for a big cozy sweater or a sweatshirt that my sisters gave me over 15 years ago.
Take some time to think about how your clothing and such changes depending on your mood and how it varies for those you know, and take notes. Use them to help portray your character’s moods in your writing.
Do you have a favourite quote that conveys character emotions through show-not-tell? Anything you think I forgot? Let me know in the comments below!