Written by JJ Barnes
To show not tell is a piece of writing advice that is regularly given to writers. It’s genuinely excellent advice, but without development it can be hard to understand.
I previously wrote about showing not telling your character’s environment and actions. For this I’ll be focusing on what show don’t tell means in relation to your characters emotions and feelings.
What Does Show Not Tell Mean?
To tell your readers how a character feels, you can say words like “scared” or “passionate” or “angry”. It will very quickly and efficiently tell your readers what feelings the character has. It works but it’s dry, it’s flat, and it doesn’t build the connection between your reader and your character.
Pushing your readers inside your characters mind by showing how those emotions are making them behave is stronger. It’s more interesting, and it makes your reader feel what your character feels.
By showing not telling, you make your readers feel that the story is woven intrinsically to the character. They are not an outside observer simply being told what’s going on. Your audience will feel what that character feels. They are part of the story.
Show Not Tell With Body Language
Whilst we all understand what it means to feel angry. When you’re connected to the interiority of the angry person by their body language, you really feel it with them.
An angry person will clench their fists and set their jaw. They will feel bubbling fury in their guts that threatens to erupt out of them. They’ll try to control their words, their voice will shake as they try not to shout. Then they won’t be able to control it any longer. They’ll yell everything they’re angry about directly at the person who they’re angry with.
Being told they’re angry might make sense, and logically you’ll understand why they’ve shouted. But the build up, and body language and feelings inside, really make you part of that anger.
By sticking to one POV character in the scene, as you should, you’ll be able to give their interiority as they talk to people. You can show how they interpret how other people talk to them.
If your character fancies someone, when that person speaks you could tell your audience they him and are giggling. Or you could follow your character’s interiority, how their heart is fluttering and hands are sweating. How they’re trying not to be silly but can feel themselves giggle because of being overcome by emotions. You can talk about how they move their eyes up and down him, absorbing the shape of his body. Describe their feelings about his firm arms and solid chest. Describe their response to his beautiful soft eyes, with just a hint of mischief.
As the character who is the object of desire speaks, your character will be listening for clues as to whether the attraction is mutual. Hoping for hints of flirtation, hoping to interpret those signs right and nervous they’ll get it wrong. There will be anxiety and hope mingling together causing butterflies in their chest.
Again putting your audience inside your character responding to a person make it feel real. The interaction suddenly becomes more real. That passion and attraction feels part of the story in a richer way. You’re not just telling your audience that your character is attracted to someone.
Make Your Readers Feel
I’ve written before about how if you can connect your audience to your characters strongly enough you’ll be able to make them cry when you throw tragedy into the story. Be it a broken heart from the loss of a lover, or the death of a loved one. Use the technique of show don’t tell for those feelings to forge that bond to make your reader cry.
We’ve all had our heart broken, had someone we love betray us, and we know what it feels like. If you tell your readers that your character is grieving a lost relationship, it will make sense. Their tears won’t be confusing. But reliving those feelings through the character, experiencing their pain with them, will mean you’re not only feeling their pain but feeling your own heartache all over again.
Dig deep into your own experiences, your own pain, and bleed it onto the page. Write their feelings as they swarm through their body. The loss of the future they had so believed in, the sickness at never holding that person again. Write about feeling of burning on their skin from the last time they felt their lovers touch. How they want to throw up and scream and cry all at the same time. The abject misery and despair of losing that person you’d given your body, your trust, and your future to.
Write it and feel it as your write it. If you feel it, your readers will feel it. If your readers feel it, then that character is now part of them.
Using Show Not Tell To Connect Your Readers To Your Characters
Showing how your character feels draws your readers in. It makes your characters feel like people they’re bonded to and can relate to on a deeper and more meaningful level.
When your readers can relate to your characters and feel part of their story, everything in your story will become more real and matter more to them. If it matters, they’ll be invested and want to stick around to the end, read further adventures if you write a sequel, and care enough about your characters to leave good reviews.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose