As writers, we are taught to show and not tell. In fact, we hear that refrain so often, it can become irritating. The honest truth, though, is that it’s advice that has merit ESPECIALLY when it comes to getting across how your characters are feeling. A large part of showing is about body language. How a person stands, how they hold their hands, the direction they’re looking – these are all cues to help clue a reader in. Pair these with facial expressions, and you can say so much more. For example, if you write:
He looked sad.
Your reader must then call to mind what sadness looks like, and then interpret how your character wears this emotion. Most likely, if your editor is like mine, they will ask, “Yes, but what does sadness look like?” I spent a lot of time pondering these types of questions when I copped out and just told you how my characters felt. I studied people trying to read their expressions and understand what a lift of an eyebrow means or how a jaw tightens with tension, stress, or anger. I filed these mental notes away and used them often. So in that example above, rather than tell my reader my character is sad, I might write:
The corners of his mouth turned down.
The reader gets a mental picture, and they can interpret the emotion. Sometimes, though, I find that I have writer ticks, little habits I fall back on or expressions I use too often to get the emotions across. I wondered how I could keep my language fresh. And then, I started watching LIE TO ME, a TV show that has since been cancelled. In the show (based on a real life study), a team of experts conduct studies on microexpressions, little minute shifts in expression that convey various emotions. As part of their ad campaign, the show released images of the actor Tim Roth making various expressions, while the art called out the key characteristics of the emotion he was expressing. I’ve saved all of these images into a file, and I refer to them often when I want to shake things up in my show not tell world.
I thought I would share them with you, so maybe you can think about how to expand your range. I hope these help you like they have me!
Challenge: Try doing a quick exercise where you pick an emotion and SHOW it instead of telling us how your character feels. Feel free to leave these in the comments!
- Corrine Jackson