QOTW: Emotional Scenes

6 May

This week’s question is from Nicole, who asks:

How do you write deep emotional characters and events using the show and not tell method.?


To write anything in a SHOW method instead of a TELL, you’ve gotta first understand the difference.  Compare:

“Why did you do that?” I yelled as we stood in the kitchen. I was furious he had cheated on me.


“Why did you do that?” My words came out screechy and filled the entire space of our tiny kitchen.  Howdare the bastard cheat on me–how dare he!  I clasped my hands to my chest because if I didn’t, I knew I’d slap him.  Oh man, how I wanted to slap him.

Notice a difference between the two?  Which one pulls you into the character’s feelings more?  Telling involves summary–condensing all the feelings and thoughts and actions into a few words.  Showing, on the other hand, involves sharing specific feelings, describing sensory details, and pulling the reader directly into the scene.

Another example:

Carrie was determined to find her brother, Mark, in the wharf riots.  She had to see tell him their mother was dying.  But the riots were against people like here, so she would have to be brave.


Carrie knew she had to tell her brother, Mark.  She couldn’t let Mother pass away without him there to say goodbye. But she also knew the only way find him was to go straight into the riots at the wharf–the riots protesting people like her.  The riots that had already killed fourteen members of her clan.

But she had to do it.

So with her jaw set and her chin tipped high, she marched from her mother’s sickbed and to the front door.

Of course, showing doesn’t always have to be longer (i.e. more words) than telling.  Here’s one more example:

In my bedroom, I typed quickly.  It was raining outside.


The rain hit my bedroom window, a staccato descant to my furious typing.

Another thing to remember: sometimes you want to tell. Sometimes telling carries more weight or is more appropriate–it’s up to you to decide when. 🙂


Sooz is pretty much a genius and took the words right out of my mouth. Listen to her.

(yes, that’s my answer)


Susan gave an amazing answer! There’s just one small thing I want to add… some of my favorite moments in books is when we come to a realization of truth where the MC realizes that a character they trusted has a dark secret, or had betrayed them in the past. In those moments, the author never has to tell us the significance of this revelation; we already know, because we’re familiar with the relationship and story surrounding these characters.

That’s something to keep in mind; when your characters are reacting during the climax of the plot, you don’t have to re-explain why the MC is upset, you can just show their reactions, which mirror the reader’s.


The only tiny thing I could think of to add to Susan’s brilliant answer is an example of when you might want to tell instead of showing.  The best example I could come up with of that situation would be in THE HUNGER GAMES when Katniss feels like crying but fights to hide her emotions. In a case like that, if the writer doesn’t tell us what Katniss is feeling, we as readers have no way of knowing the conflict between her thoughts and her actions.
 Other than that example, I cannot add a thing to Susan’s great explanation.  Great answer, Sooz!


How do you tackle showing, not telling, emotional scenes?


6 Responses to “QOTW: Emotional Scenes”

  1. Rowenna May 6, 2011 at 8:55 AM #

    Great ideas! I usually use what I know about my characters in emotional scenes–when I pull back and think about how different characters would react to situations, it often becomes much clearer how to show their emotions. One character is going to burst out crying when another is going to ball up her fists and hold back from pummeling someone.

    • Susan May 6, 2011 at 10:24 AM #

      Such a good point, Rowenna! Each character has their own “unique” reaction, and when you share that, you’re definitely SHOWING. 😀

  2. Emery May 6, 2011 at 11:13 AM #

    It’s always posts like these where I’m not sure what to say in the comment area. Even the authors don’t know what to add on! 🙂

    I wrote a short story this semester with a character who represses her emotions. This obviously causes issues for the author trying to write about them, so to show her emotions without her expressly feeling them, I used tension between her and her environment to hype express them. Overall, I was really pleased with the outcome, and it worked perfectly for this character.

    • Susan May 10, 2011 at 10:10 AM #

      Nice approach! I’m impressed you could do that–I’m not sure I’d have ANY clue how to share repressed feelings. I’ll keep that tactic in mind for future writing!


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