show don't tell

How Do I “Show, Don’t Tell” Emotions?

Dear Editor…

How do I describe emotions so that the reader can really feel them? I know I am supposed to show and not tell. However, can I do both? Can I say – “Elaina was sad. Her eyes were looking down and large tears were dripping onto her eyelashes and down her cheeks?” Or should I just remove the first sentence and just keep the second?

Caring in California

Dear Caring in California…

For the example you provide, I suggest choosing just one of the two sentences. No need to belabor the point. But your question is bigger than that example. Can a writer make outright statements of emotion? Elaina was sad. Yes. Such statements are valid tools to stock in your writer’s toolbox for variety. Just make it a lesser-used tool. Such statements aren’t as interesting as something a reader must interpret in order to know the character’s emotions. Interpreting is interactive reading, and interactive readers are engaged readers. A tip, because you mention eyes and eyelashes: Be stingy about describing eyes and facial expressions, because those easily become crutches. I often count dozens of “eyes” “looked” “face” “expression” in a single manuscript. That author is stuck. How do people express their emotions beyond the look on their face? They slam doors. They throw pillows. They slump in chairs. They drag their feet when they walk. They punch the air in victory. They fidget. They wash and rewash some faint spot on their shirt, cursing at the stupid stain remover for not working. What’s happening in those examples? Characters are engaging with props and the setting in ways that display their emotions. They are moving and behaving in ways that reveal their feelings. Try this: Imagine you’re watching a video of your character—but you can’t see their head or face. What is their body language? How are they moving and interacting with people/props/setting? There are oodles of ways to reveal character emotions, and no eyes need be in sight.

Happy writing!
The Editor

The Editor, Deborah Halverson, has been editing books for over 25 years and specializes in Middle Grade/Young Adult fiction and nonfiction, New Adult fiction, and picture books. For her editorial guidance in making your manuscript ready for submission to agents and publishers or for self-publishing, click Editorial services.

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