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  • Writer's pictureNicole Arch

3 Reasons Why NOT to Tell Readers How Your Characters Feel

You want the reader to be invested in the emotional journey and struggles of your protagonist. But “telling” the reader about feelings, or naming the emotions directly, can actually damage your story’s immersion and emotional impact. In this article, we’ll go through the three main dangers of telling emotions, as well as five alternatives that show, not tell, your reader how your characters feel.

A puzzled, angry, and sad face with speech bubbles, saying, "3 Reasons Why NOT to Tell Readers How Your Characters Feel"

Why Is Telling Emotions Bad for Your Story?

“Telling” is when, instead of painting an immersive picture for the reader, the author chooses to summarize the situation. Consider the following example of telling, which focuses on a third person POV protagonist, Bob:


Watching the flames devour his home, Bob was shocked and devastated.


The sentence isn’t wrong by any means. Yet this example also fails to be particularly impactful, because telling emotions risks believability, creates distance, and over-explains to the reader.


1. Risking Believability

When a real person is struck by sadness, their first thought is rarely “I’m sad.” Instead, such emotions are subconscious. We don’t notice them unless something draws our attention to them—for example, a physical sensation like a sinking stomach, a shift in body language like clenched fist or hunched shoulders, or a change in tone like a raised voice. Many people, especially those not in touch with their feelings or those struggling with complex emotions, will likely require some time to process and identify what they’re experiencing. So, when an author tells the reader how the POV character feels directly, they risk the believability of the perspective, which can bump or jar the reader from your story.


2. Creating Distance

When an author tells emotions, they pull the reader away from the character’s sensations and thought processes to instead summarize the scene. The author creates distance between the reader and the character, essentially asking the reader to just take their word for how the character feels instead of immersing the reader in the emotions of the character through descriptions and actions.


3. Over-explaining

Lastly, “telling” emotion risks frustrating the reader. Writing coach and bestselling author Angela Ackerman notes that readers “don’t want to have the scene explained to them, which is what happens when a writer tells how a character feels,” because the audience is smart enough to figure things out for themselves. Inferring a character's emotions from context clues also helps readers make personal connections and become more invested in your story, so you shouldn't deprive them of this experience by over-explaining.



Of course, there may be some rare scenarios where telling emotions is preferable. Speculative fiction author Hannah Yang notes that “a good golden rule is to use ‘show, don’t tell’ when you want to increase reader engagement and make readers feel more connected to your characters, and use ‘tell, don’t show’ when you’re describing something unimportant or your pacing feels too slow.” But since your manuscript should naturally focus around important scenes, engagement, and character connection, “show, don’t tell” is more often the right call!


How to Show, Not Tell, Emotions

Unlike telling, "showing" is concerned with description and action. Consider the following example of showing:


This can’t be happening. Bob’s vision swam as acrid smoke burned his lungs and throat. He embraced the blur of tears, letting the fuzzy streaks of orange and red replace the flames eating away at his home.


Both this example and the “telling” one describe the same scene and emotion, but the effect couldn’t be more different! In the first example, the reader knows Bob is sad because the author states the feeling directly. In the second example, the reader can actually experience Bob’s sadness along with him since the author depicts the sensation through vivid imagery, body language, and thoughts.


So how can you show emotions to your reader instead of telling them?


Physical Sensations

One of the first things that cues people into their emotions is the sensation a given emotion produces in the body. A churning stomach might be a result of guilt or anxiety. A swelling of the heart might indicate joy or gratitude. Sometimes, a given physical sensation can evoke more than one emotion!

Readers will recognize these sensations from their own experiences, and they’ll use these clues to infer which emotion(s) the author intends to evoke using context from the scene. For example, a character’s heart racing in anticipation of their favorite holiday (excitement) will feel very different than if their heart is racing as a response to a stranger chasing them down a dark alleyway (fear). And a character whose heart races as they break the seal on their college admission letter, on the verge of discovering whether their dream school accepted them or not, will likely feel a mixture of both excitement and fear! As such, the reader can still identify the emotion easily, despite not being told the feeling directly… and since the author’s focus is on evoking the physical sensation, the reader additionally gets to feel and experience this sensation along with the character.

However, it’s important to note that physical sensations only work for the emotions of the POV character. Unless your POV character is checking her scene partner’s pulse or has a magical ability, she shouldn’t know that his heart is racing! If she knows him well enough, she might wonder about his heart rate, or even assume that he feels a certain way… but since she wouldn’t know for sure, his heart rate shouldn’t be presented as a fact to the reader while in her POV.

You should also watch out for clichés in descriptions of physical sensations. Yes, butterflies in the stomach can evoke the sensation of crushing on someone… but since the reader has seen this phrase countless times, they won’t be as affected by this phrase as they would be by a fresh, unexpected description of the same sensation!

Lastly, be careful not to overdo or overuse your physical descriptions. For example, it’s fair to say your character feels hit by a truck in the event of a great loss, like the death of a loved one. But if they’re being hit by a truck at every minor setback, like not winning first place or losing their homework, these descriptions will start to feel more melodramatic than emotionally impactful.


Body Language

Body language is one of the easiest ways to clue readers into emotions. Crossing one’s arms might indicate defensiveness or anger. Shaky hands can evoke fear or perhaps uncertainty. A smile can evoke happiness, unless, of course, it doesn’t meet the eyes. And, just like with physical sensations, body language is deciphered by the reader based on context. A character slumping their shoulders at the sight of a failed math test (sadness/defeat) will feel very different from a character hunching their shoulders as they slip past a group of bullies in the hallway (fear).

Unlike physical sensations, body language can be used for POV and non-POV characters. For example, while your POV character probably doesn’t know their scene partner’s heart is racing, she might notice him flush or avert his eyes. Such body language clues your POV character and the reader into how the other character feels without breaking the established POV!

However, watch out for autonomous bodies, or making body parts act independently from the character. For example:


“Bob’s eyes looked up at the house, and his fists clenched.”


Instead of focusing on the character Bob, this example centers around Bob’s body. According to writing guide author K.M. Weiland, autonomous bodies make readers “associate our action verbs not with our autonomous characters, but with their dependent body parts.” Instead, that agency should be reserved for the character (not their physical form). Consider the following rewrite:


"Bob looked up at the house and clenched his fists.”


This version avoids any autonomous body parts, keeping the focus on Bob’s character and agency. While there will always be some exceptions to the rule, generally, focusing on character agency over body parts will help keep your writing clear, strong, and effective!


Thought processes

Thought processes are an amazing way to subtly show your character’s emotions. Angela Ackerman notes:

When swept up by emotion, our thoughts follow certain patterns. Worry has us jumping to conclusions and imagining the worst case scenario. Skepticism has us poking holes, looking for proof that our intuition is right and something’s rotten in the litter box. Scorn goes further, revealing those ugly, judgey-judge thoughts we have about someone else.

In short, the way your POV character thinks, including how they observe and internally react to a given scene, can tell your reader a lot about his emotional state. For example, when Bob watches his house burn down in our initial demonstration of showing, the writer conveys Bob’s shock to the reader through his denial: "This can’t be happening." In contrast, an angry or guilty Bob’s thoughts might revolve around finding someone to blame. Or a relieved Bob—say, one watching his house burn down along with the nearly unstoppable monster he’d trapped inside—would likely focus on the situation finally being over.

Like physical sensations, thought processes are limited to your POV character. Unless he can read minds, your protagonist won’t know what his classmate is thinking. The POV character and the reader alike are thus limited to wondering what’s going through her mind, or else making assumptions based on context clues and any prior knowledge of her.

Lastly, remember that thought processes can also include the avoidance of certain thoughts. For example, most people will go out of their way to avoid people, places, or topics related to their trauma—an upsetting past event that makes them deeply uncomfortable or hurt. Like real people, characters typically avoid thinking about their trauma, if they can help it. And if the topic does come up in their mind, they’re often quick to pivot to another line of thought in order to avoid any emotional fallout. But as the POV characters grow over the course of the novel, they’ll eventually need to face their trauma directly, letting their emotions come more fully to light for themselves and the reader.


Dialogue and Dialogue Tags

Dialogue can be a great way of subtly showing how a POV or non-POV character feels. The key is to focus on realism. For example, Angela Ackerman notes that “people rarely state their feelings directly—they beat around the bush.” For example, instead of saying “I’m thrilled about magic school,” an excited young wizard might rave about his schedule and all the activities he “just can’t wait for.” Instead of saying “I’m worried about my kid’s first day at school,” an anxious mom might double or triple check with her daughter that she’s packed her lunch, has all her supplies, and knows who to call in an emergency. Or instead of saying “I’m mad,” an angry, evil scientist might rant about the hero (or platypus) who keeps foiling his plans. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. A young child, for example, is much more likely than an adult to express their feelings simply and directly; alternatively, an adult might state their emotions by name in response to a probing question, during a therapy session, or in a heart to heart conversation. But in most cases, people are much more likely to talk about their emotions in a roundabout way.

And don’t forget that how a character says something can be just as important as what they say! Think about pitch, speed, tone, and other vocal quirks and tells. A character might struggle to speak or choke on words if he’s on the verge of tears, while one on the verge of blowing up might raise her voice to a shout or take a pause to regain control of her temper. A character might talk quickly when feeling excited, nervous, or impatient; in contrast, slower speaking could imply reluctance, thoughtfulness, or caution. A character might interrupt someone else to avoid a painful subject, or she could cut herself off to avoid giving away a secret. These descriptions in dialogue tags or action beats can make the emotions of the characters that much clearer to your reader. Just be careful not to overdo it with the tags—you don’t want to distract the reader from the real focus, which should almost always be the content of the dialogue.


Actions

There’s a reason for the saying “actions speak louder than words!” Focusing on the actions of POV and non-POV characters will not only create a more vivid and interesting scene, but also clue the reader into a given character’s emotional state in a subtle, immersive way. For example, an angry character might make rash decisions in the heat of the moment, like standing up quickly enough to topple his chair or even quitting his job on the spot. A character suffering from guilt might go out of his way to be kind to the person she secretly betrayed, as a means of assuaging her own conscience. A pained character might avoid a particular place, person, or topic that triggers strong negative emotions, even if that means going through great lengths (such as hiding in his office, showing up to work late or leaving early, or staying home sick to avoid his coworker ex). Strong emotions affect the decision-making skills and behaviors of characters, often causing irrational actions or even regrettable mistakes… all of which helps you craft a more interesting and nuanced narrative!

Lastly, inactions, or the avoidance of actions, can also be used to show emotion. For example, a depressed character might repeatedly notice her room is a mess—or, on a larger scale, that her relationships are falling apart—but struggle to make herself do anything about the issue. However, be careful to avoid relying too heavily on inaction, since a lack of action or agency can make your characters feel passive.


Final Thoughts

Showing instead of telling emotions requires you to trust your audience. Readers are smart. They can and will read between the lines. So instead of telling emotions directly, focus on showing them through physical sensations, body language, thoughts, dialogue, actions, or whatever other methods you prefer. If you let your audience puzzle through the struggles of feelings alongside your protagonist, you’ll help them stay immersed in the perspective and scene, allowing for a much stronger emotional impact overall.


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