For me, distinguishing between showing and telling has not been easy. Telling sometimes looks like showing, but the two are worlds apart in the way they affect readers.
Here’s an example to contrast the two:
Telling: Mr. Paxton’s eyes were sad as he gave her the news. “I’m sorry, JoAnne, but your position with the company is no longer necessary.” Instantly, JoAnne was angrier than she’d ever been in her life.
Showing: JoAnne sat on the chair’s edge, spine straight as a new pencil and stared into Mr. Paxton’s face….The vinyl of her purse crackled and she lightened her grip on it.
In the telling example, we know Mr. Paxton is sad. We know JoAnne is angry. We know because the writer tells us, but we don’t really feel or experience the emotion. We are like outsiders looking upon a diorama – detached, uninvolved, and not really part of the story.
In the showing example, we see JoAnne’s tension and anger (perched at the edge, spine straight), we hear it (purse crackled), and we feel it (tightened her grip). Through sensory details like these, we become invested in the characters and at one with the story.
These two examples are from The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writers Guide to Character Expression (Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglist, 2012). This easy-to-navigate book is a rich resource for writers searching for unique and compelling ways to provide readers with a full emotional experience by showing rather than telling.
According to the authors, most exchanges of emotional information in everyday situations are non-verbal. In 93% of all communication, we reveal our emotional state to others not through words, but through body language. Since readers are skilled body language interpreters, the most effective and genuine way of indicating the emotional state of characters is to embed nonverbal cues into our writing.
The book tackles 75 different emotions ranging from adoration to worry, listed alphabetically for easy reference. Each emotion is defined then broken into three elements: physical signals (body language and actions); internal sensations (visceral reactions) and mental responses (thoughts).
Back to the example above, rather than telling readers that JoAnne is angry for instance, the book offers 36 physical manifestations that show anger – everything from flaring nostrils to sweeping arm gestures. In addition, the authors list 6 internal, instinctive sensations – grinding one’s teeth, sweating – and 8 mental or thought responses – irritability, jumping to conclusions. By carefully balancing physical indicators with internal and mental ones, the writer creates real-life situations that connect with readers on an emotional level.
In addition to lists of emotions, the book offers opening chapters covering writing basics on topics such as avoiding clichés and melodrama, utilizing dialogue, and the importance of back story.
I’m into revisions of my middle-grade novel, Missing in Paradise, and have used The Emotion Thesaurus several times when I realize I am telling rather than showing. From that perspective, it’s been a great jumping-off point, giving me options that I might not have considered otherwise.
However you use it, The Emotion Thesaurus is a wonderful addition to any writer’s collection of resources and one I highly recommend.