Show Don’t Tell: How to Write Emotions

Awhile back I had the opportunity to do an Author Visit at a school. As I was preparing, I happened to see a timely blog post from author Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. The theme of the post was “Show Don’t Tell.” As the mantra of the writing industry, I thought that would be the perfect topic for the group of students I’d be working with — especially since it would allow me to draw upon my theatre background. I ended up putting together an interactive workshop that had the students using theater techniques like tableaux and pantomime to experience the emotions in their stories. Below is a look at how I approached the topic  with some tips for writers.

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So we all know we are supposed to show not tell, but how do we actually do it? Especially when it comes to emotions. The actress in me says that we’ll never be able to do it accurately unless we have actually felt the emotion we want to describe. Unless the physical feeling has been in our bodies, from the tops of our heads to the tips of our feet.

How can we transform, “she was mad,” into something more powerful for the page or stage? For starters, we can put that feeling into our body and allow ourselves to experience it. What happens when you’re mad? Allow yourself to feel it.

Do your cheeks burn?

Do your hands curl into fists?

Does your jaw clench?

Do you feel like you could bore holes into walls with the intensity of  your gaze or drive your fist through a brick wall?


Now give your anger a voice.

Do your words spew out like lava?

Do they grind out from behind your teeth?

Do you spit them out in disgust?


Go one step further. Don’t be general in your approach. Think of something that truly makes you mad (or that would make you mad!) If the situation your character is in would cause the same emotion in you, try that. If not, substitute something that would lead you to the same type of emotion you are trying to describe. (Substitution is a time-honored technique used by many actors.) Try it with as many emotions as you can come up with (excitement, shock, fear, sadness, despair, etc.)

Go through your manuscript or the story you are telling. Look for any weak areas of telling emotion. Stop and allow yourself to truly experience the emotion. Then use that to show the emotion in a more powerful way. I think you’ll find that not only will it improve your writing – it will also give you a fun and creative release when you’re stuck with writer’s block and need to get out of your head.

For a look at exploring emotions using picture books, see my previous post here.

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