Showing – Not Telling Emotions

Photo by Narupon Promvichai on Unsplash


Hi SEers. John here with you today. I’m going to further discuss the idea of giving characters life with gestures. The reason for gestures (or beats as they are sometimes called) is to provide a character some tools to share with the reader without the writer explaining what is going on. These tools can communicate moods and nuances when the character is speaking.

It is always uncomfortable for a reader to be forced to guess what a character means or what emotional state that character is in. When the author tries to help out by explaining the current emotional state of the character, the reader many times is taken out of the story in the classic “show/ don’t tell” mistake.

So, what are the various forms of nonverbal communication, and how would a writer use them to covey the intended non-verbal message of a character? As can be imagined, there are hundreds of ways we humans communicate with each other without saying a word.

All these can be grouped into nine primary areas. Facial expressions, gestures, paralinguistics  (tone, volume, inflection, and pitch of voice), body language and posture, personal space needs, eye gaze, touch, appearance, and artifacts (uniform, gravatar, objects)

Given the number of ways these nine general non-verbal areas can be deployed, this is a multi-faceted subject. My intent here is to expose a few in the hopes that interest will encourage an exploration of others. So let’s start with some cues that a writer can place in the story which will communicate the speaker’s mood. In a later episode, we’ll get to more.

Doubt – Shifting the mouth to one side, raising eyebrows, leaning forward in a chair, and looking hard at someone or something. Example – James raises his eyebrows, and stares at the pen. “It will do all that?”

Confusion – Widened eyes, scrunched eyebrows, running fingers through the hair, and putting a hand to the chin or other place on the face. Example – James’ eyes widen, “You’ll have to go through that again.”

Anger – Furrowed eyebrows, the face reddening, clenched fist, clenched teeth, tightened lips (or a snarl), and sometimes a distant or overly focused look on the face. Example – James raises his reddened face and meets John’s eyes with his. “Get out.”

Indifference – Eye roll, looking up, looking right or left, shoulder shrug. Example – James looks to the right. “You’re the boss on this one.”

Embarrassment/insecurity – Looking down, touching the face, biting the lip, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting with fingers or objects. Example – James looks down. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”

Disagreement/disbelief – Folded arms, avoiding eye contact, tight lips, looking away, head shaking. Example – James folds his arms across his chest. “You need to say more about that.”

Agreement/interest – Smile, head nod, handshake. Leaning forward in a chair, Eye contact,  Example – James smiles and nods. “Good plan.”

Relaxed /confident – Crossed legs, leaning back in a chair, hands in lap, arm over the back of a chair.  Example – James leans back in the soft leather chair and looks across the desk directly into Sally’s eyes. “So how long has it been since your last drink?”

I hope you find this information interesting, and we will talk about it more in future posts.

How do you show feelings and emotions in your work?  Let’s talk about them in the comments section.


80 thoughts on “Showing – Not Telling Emotions

  1. The nine general means of non-verbal communication was something I hadn’t heard before. Excellent examples, John. I find myself getting repetitive now and again, and I refer to my “Emotional Thesaurus” for other ideas for ways to show a character’s feelings. Great post.

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  5. Great information snd pist, John 🙂 I do a lot of this during editing after the first draft. Hopefully at some point it will become second nature.

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  6. This is a great post, John. Adding beats to a scene brings a subtlety and nuance that a reader might otherwise miss. And the layering of different kinds of communication can really add oompth to a passage. At least one other commenter mentioned the Emotion Thesaurus—I find that a terrific tool for nonverbal cues and beats.

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  7. The emotional aspects of a character are always important to me when I’m writing a scene. I rely on beats over tags. I also enjoy having character emotion conveyed that way when I’m reading. Using beats well can really draw a reader into a scene. These are all great examples, John!

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  8. Very helpful post, John, and your examples underscore your points. Beats draw readers in and those who use them effectively create unforgettable stories. Well done! 😊

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  9. I like to use beats in my writing but have to be careful to not get stuck using the same one over and over. Before I polished one book, my protagonist raised his eyebrows so often, it became ridiculous. I’ve been working harder lately to really think about the beats I use.


  10. Great post and good, clear examples. James must be exhausted now! The words on their own are open to interpretation and using beats like these clarify the situation, make it more visual and draw the reader in even closer.

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  12. I had terrible trouble with beats when I first started writing. Most of those lovely moments were in my head, and I didn’t know that a reader couldn’t see any of them! Looking forward to more posts like these, John…

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  13. HI John, thanks for this information, it is a good reminder. I was told during a podcast interview the other day that I write emotion well. I was quite surprised. I do my best, but don’t mentally focus on it specifically. I suppose different aspects of writing come naturally to different writers. Dialogue is the hardest for me.

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