Balancing Show and Tell
Writers often hear the advice we should show, not tell, in our writing. I like to strike a healthy balance between the two. But how can we show our characters more effectively?
Let’s take two examples:
‘Get out,’ he said angrily.
The first example is a classic example of a tell. It succinctly states the man is angry, but not how it is being expressed. Unless you have established this elsewhere, the reader must decide how the character projects their anger.
‘Get out,’ he hissed through gritted teeth.
The second example shows anger. The reader can sense the tension in his body and it hints the man is holding back the full brunt of his anger, and that it could get a lot worse if they disobeyed his order.
Both have their merits and setbacks. In the case above, showing reveals much more about the character. However, telling is a subtle cue to allow the reader to know the character’s mood without breaking the scene’s momentum.
Back before Twitter turned into a Hellhole, I hosted a writing prompt called #FeelLines. Each prompt related to an emotion, and the aim was to show the emotion rather than use the prompt word itself. I thought it would be a helpful game for writers to delve into character emotions. For me, it was useful because I could pull up a line from my WIP where I wrote, ‘she looked sad,’ and sit and think how would this character portray her sadness.
The science behind our emotions
The limbic system is part of our nervous system within the brain and controls our basic emotions (fear, pleasure, anger etc) and drives (sex, hunger, care of offspring). It’s in control of things you don’t even have to think about, like breathing or blushing.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
The sympathetic nervous system is what we commonly know as our ‘fight or flight’ mode. It often gets a lot of bad press, but without a base level of activity from this part of our nervous system, we wouldn’t be able to function. It also primes the body when it perceives danger, and we shouldn’t knock it when it’s trying to keep us alive. Our lives are much different to our ancestors and we are continuously bombarded by stimuli which trigger our ‘flight or flight’ response. The parasympathetic nervous system is what we know as our ‘rest and digest’ and ‘feed and breed’, which gives you a pretty good idea of what you’ll be getting up to in this relaxed state!
What is an emotion?
It’s pretty hard to describe. It’s a biological complex. Chemicals and neurons fire off, causing internal sensations in the body and an outward expression to show others how we feel. At the core, an emotion is a sensory experience of the body. Feelings are the subjective response to that experience, e.g. I have a tightness in my chest = I am feeling anxiety.
Stages of Emotions
Something has to set you off. We are animals reacting to the surrounding stimulus (but as humans, we have the bonus of reacting to our thoughts too)! Triggers are typically based on our previous experiences and come in many flavours.
- Behaviour based – e.g. alcohol or exercise
- Event based – e.g. family get together, office parties
- Engagement based – e.g. through conversation or our felt sense. You’ll notice the vibe if you enter a room filled with cheerful people compared to a room of angry people.
- Emotional based – e.g. this can be practically anything. A sound, a smell, a text, a movie. The scent of vanilla triggers disgust in me because it reminds me of when I had gastric flu and the vanilla room spray in the toilet I was perpetually throwing up in.
How the body experiences the emotion.
Our internal dialogue amplifies the sensory experience. An emotion only lasts for around sixty seconds in the body. It is our thoughts which allow us to prolong the experience.
This is how you act out an emotion in your behaviour or body language. It includes instances where you consciously suppress an emotion, e.g. biting your bottom lip to stop yourself from shouting at someone who has made you angry.
This is how you feel and act in the aftermath. A pleasant experience might prompt you to do it again. An unpleasant experience might cause you to change your habits and how you feel about yourself.
The Wheel of Emotions
Do a quick internet search for ‘the emotion wheel’ and you’ll find many examples. There are six basic emotions, and each can be divided further into more specific emotional states, e.g. happy becomes accepted, then respected. Fear becomes scared, becomes terrified.
The six main emotional states are:
When a new character shows up in my brain, I will take these six emotional states and ask the following questions:
- What internal and external triggers result in this emotion?
- How does their body experience this emotion?
- What internal dialogue is happening? Do they amplify the experience or try to suppress it?
- How do they act out the emotion in their behaviour/body language/voice? How would they try to suppress it?
- How do they feel in the aftermath?
Having a basic understanding of how an individual character acts in the six main emotional states means it is easier to hone in on more specific ones while keeping it unique and in line with the character, e.g. how their fear turns into terror.
Sigh. Shrug, Nod.
These are staple emotional show fillers. While there is nothing wrong with them, it can be tiresome if every character does them. Giving your character habits based on their emotional landscape not only signals to the other characters around them their mood but also the reader. If one character tends to wring out their hands whenever they are anxious, then whenever it’s shown, the reader knows how they’re feeling. Equally, if you combine both this show and moments where you only mention the character is anxious, the reader will know how they will show it.
Giving characters unique tics and internal dialogue makes them much more individual. While internal sensations are typically the same for everyone, it is worth considering which your character is more aware of. When I’m anxious, I feel pain in my chest and throat. But someone else may notice it as discomfort in their neck, stomach and intestines or runaway thoughts which cause them to lose sleep.
Checking in with your body when experiencing an emotion is a great way to tune into these sensations. Family and friends will show their feelings to you. Another trick is to do a GIF search for a specific emotion and watch the facial expressions and body language.
Do you have any tips and tricks for showing emotions in your writing? Or do you think I should resurrect #FeelLines on my Mastodon account? Let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe for more writerly talk and Cornish shenanigans.