Never Name an Emotion in Your Story

Never Name an Emotion in Your Story

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.

From Where You Dream by Robert Olen ButlerIn 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.

Tell me your opinion: Have you told or shown your character’s latest emotion?

Never Name an Emotion in Your Story

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. “Another bowl of chow mein?” Love it! No one can accuse you of lacking creativity!

  2. Glad you liked it. I got a tickle out of that one myself!

  3. This says it all, “It’s pretty easy to tell the reader that “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 that the reader is being told what Sam is feeling, rather than being shown.” There’s so much more emotion in the latter way versus the former way in what you were saying.

  4. “Brevity is the soul of wit” – but it’s not always the soul of good writing. Sometimes it takes three times as many words to convincingly show something, versus just telling the reader. But it’s almost always worth it.

  5. This advice was just what I needed right now… never name an emotion!
    I am a new writer and need so much direction and correction. Your blog is wonderful!

  6. Thanks for reading!

    This is such a simple trick, but one that’s so easy to overlook. I’m currently reworking an older piece of my own, and I’m seeing quite a few places where I needed to be reminded of this rule myself!

  7. Thanks for your comment on the loop and link to this blog! Excellent idea “never name the emotion!” It made showing vs. telling a little clearer to this new writer!

  8. Thanks for reading! I’m glad you got something out of it.

  9. I was just explaining this to a friend yesterday. I’ve even had students act out their scenes, paying attention to how they “embody” the emotions so they can “show” them in their writing. BUT — I love, love, love the simple phrase “Never name the emotion.” I’ll quote you on that!

  10. Funny how putting something into a succinct phrase can suddenly make it hit home, isn’t it? Thanks for reading!

  11. So right! You really have to know when and where to put those descriptions. Just like anything else if you break the rule (show don’t tell) you have to do it WELL.

  12. In short, if you’re going to break the rules, break them brilliantly!

  13. Jessica says:

    I’ve been reading all these articles on your site for the past hour… You give such good advice! ^_^ I followed you on Twitter(:

  14. Yay! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the site, and I’ll look forward to tweeting with you!

  15. You described in an article the whole notion of “difference between showing and telling”. Which really saved many peoples (myself included) of third drafting :p

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Showing and telling is the whole foundation of narrative fiction. Once we master that, we master the novel.

  16. thomas h cullen says:

    The Representative is all about the “showing” of emotions – the whole span of text is a visual presentation.

    The tool for vivacity is labour; labouring to the point of having forethought the story’s full distance and direction, and labouring to the point of having established authenticity in the reader’s head:

    Have you honoured previously established history? Have you remembered a certain character trait – have you even misused that very same trait? Etc etc.

    Subjectivity is fine; just make sure it’s informed by work.

  17. Hi there!
    The article makes a very good point. A nice way to recognise when you are telling rather than showing.

    I just want to point out something, in the most constructive way possible: In the article, do you perhaps mean ‘tenet’ rather than ‘tenant’? As far as I know, a ‘tenet’ is a basic principle, and a ‘tenant’ is someone who occupies a landholding. If I am incorrect, please correct me 🙂

  18. The hardest part of showing is finding words that show without sounding cliché.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true. There are only so many ways we can describe a shiver or a sigh. Sometimes the straightforward approach is best.

  19. Rickey Musick says:

    One day soon my book (s) will be on the shelves of bookstores across the nation and in the homes of hundreds of readers.

    Much of the success of my writing will be because of your willingness to teach me how to write.

    You can’t even begin to imagine how much I appreciate you!

    Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re so welcome! I’m glad the info has been useful. Will be watching for you on the NYT bestseller’s list! 😉

  20. Very interesting article. I find myself slipping into telling and passive voice all too often. I have to stay diligent to make sure my writing is always at its sharpest. Thanks for the tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Showing is habit that takes a while to inculcate. But after a while, it all starts to become second nature.

  21. Hey, I’ve just realised this is what I was doing without knowing it 🙂

    But – maybe this is just me – sometimes trying to describe a feeling without naming it makes you slip into purple prose. I’m guilty of it, I know, so I always try to balance the ‘don’t name that emotions, show it’ with the ‘get rid of all that purple, for goodness sake!’

    • JazzFeathers,

      I totally agree! You have the mantra “show don’t tell” plastered in your mind so much that sometimes you write a 45 word description when one simple word could do the trick. If only writing were easy! Then we’d all be millionaires and have this conversation over champagne on my yacht!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spot on! And, yes, this can definitely be a pitfall. When in doubt, go for the simplicity, even if it means telling.

  22. mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

    I love this article, and re-write this:

    She padded over to the closet inspecting it, empty except for a few robes, and boots. She ran her hands over the walls for any trace of hidden doors, or switches. Nothing.

    My daggers, gone .. How did he find my picks? She growled, then paced the area before the bed.

    Stopping next to the door, she slammed a fist on the wall. “You will wish to the gods you had not locked me in here!” This echoed down the hallway. She slid down in the corner by the window, her stomach heaved and twisted into a gorgons knot.

    Thank you Mawah! <3

  23. I love your blog, thank you for taking the time to help us become better writers. <3

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