Vivid writing demands more than just telling a reader how a character is feeling. Readers don’t care what the characters in your story are experiencing so much as they care what they experience through the characters. But that’s easier said than done!
One of the best rules of thumb for showing instead of telling is to never name an emotion. Love, hate, happiness, sadness, frustration, grief—they all might be easily recognizable emotions. They might even all be emotions that will immediately get a point across to a reader. But by themselves the words lack the ability to make a reader feel what we are trying to convey.
Why Naming an Emotion Is Telling
It’s pretty easy to tell readers, “Sam stood in shock.” The description is short, to the point, and every reader in the world will instantly understand what Sam is feeling.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is readers are being told what Sam is feeling, rather than being shown.
Sweeping references to generally held emotions don’t require much effort on the part of the author. But they also don’t paint vivid pictures for the readers. Saying Sam is shocked is one thing; saying “Sam stopped short and stared, his lungs turning inside out, his heart trying to thrash its way out of his chest” is another bowl of chow mein altogether.
Challenge Yourself to Show Your Character’s Emotions
Granted, my description isn’t the best portrayal of shock ever written, but you get the idea. Which description makes you feel Sam’s shock? This is a basic tenet of “show, don’t tell,” but it’s one that’s often overlooked—or at least seldom named.
In his thought-provoking book From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler discusses what he calls the “anecdote exercise,” in which students are encouraged to stretch themselves beyond summaries and generalizations.
This, of course, applies to so much more than just character feelings. It applies to every tenet of showing. But sussing out inevitable instances of telling is much easier if we have something specific—in this case a concrete noun or verb—to search for.
Train yourself to recognize concrete words that could be expanded into a more vivid description. I’m always amazed by how this one trick can blast color and energy through what otherwise might be, at best, a merely serviceable line.
Okay, So Sometimes You Should Name an Emotion
Be aware, of course, that not all summary emotions (or actions) are inappropriate. Occasionally, your story will demands you relay the short version to your readers.
Sometimes stating an emotion, on top of a description, will even strengthens the overall effect of the showing. Like all of writing, showing vs. telling is an instinctual balancing act. But if you can master it, you will give your writing a huge boost toward vivacity.