Don’t Just Tell Me, Show Me – How to Write with Emotion

Make me feel your story, make me sense it and experience it.
Take me into your world, and let me live it with your protagonist.

how to write with emotion, don't show tell, show don't tell, the last krystallos, I’m an emotive writer, and my pieces concentrate much on the senses and the old adage: show, not tell. Not every writer swears by this approach, but my writing works more in this field than with explanatory description.

Emotions rule our world and fuel our stories, without emotion our stories become a boring and grim lists of actions. Stories begin with a dilemma and continue with the reactions to that impasse. All our reactions are emotional, we’re human beings, not robots, and even if you’re writing about robots, your story will need emotional content if it is to survive!

Showing emotion is vital to fire up your writing.

life and characters, charles dickens, lisa shambrook, the last krystallos,

Life and Characters © Lisa Shambrook

Don’t tell me your protagonist is angry, show me their fury, show me the whites of their eyes, that vein that throbs in their temple, the clenching of fists, and the heat flushing through their body… Don’t tell me your character is sad, show me them picking at their food, their trembling chin, glistening eyes, show me how their voice breaks as they utter words, and how their hopelessness demonstrates itself by listless expressions and hands hanging at their sides… Don’t just say they’re happy, let me see their mouth curl in delight, their laughter lines, how they dance as they walk, a lightness of being, their confidence and relaxed shoulders…

Writers can use speech to demonstrate emotions, but nonverbal cues are even more important. We are told that body language conveys more information than words ever can. Statistics say that: words (what is said) account for 7% of the overall message we hear, tone of voice (how it is said) accounts for 38% and body language accounts for 55%…so 93% of all communication is nonverbal.

Let’s look at an example, and because May was Mental Health Awareness Month, and I missed it due to chaotic family obligations, let’s look at anxiety:

In this chapter from ‘Beneath the Old Oak’ Meg’s mum is getting impatient, irritated and her anxiety manifests. First, a basic excerpt:

“Excuse me?” said Meg’s mum. “Could we please try these in a size four?”
The sales-boy nodded. As he disappeared Mum glared at the whining child as his mother took the football boots from him. Mum glanced at her watch and sighed.
Meg moved to her mother as the boy and his mum left. Mum ignored her daughter’s grin. “He’s going to be a real brat one day. Ah, here are yours.”
The sales-boy returned with one trainer. “I’m sorry,” he said, “only got these in a three and then a seven, sold out.”
“That’s a vast difference in sizes, no others in stock? This is a shoe shop isn’t it?” said Mum.

This paragraph works in that we can see Meg’s mum is trying to get trainers for her daughter and we can see she’s getting irritated, particularly by another customer and her son, but we can’t really feel the emotions surging within her. Let’s try the paragraph again with some small additions:

“Excuse me?” Meg’s mum waved the black trainer at the sales-boy over the child’s head. “Could we please try these in a four?”
He nodded, adding the trainer to his teetering pile of boxes. As he disappeared Mum glared at the whining child as his mother tried to prise the football boot from his grasp. Mum glanced at her watch and pulled an old receipt out of her pocket. She stared in the direction of the stockroom and began tearing the receipt into thin strips.
Meg sidled up to her mother as the boy’s mum finally wrested the boot from him, returned it to the shelf and dragged him away, his complaints still echoing. Mum ignored her daughter’s grin. “He’s going to be a real brat one day. Ah, here are yours.”
Meg noted the single trainer in the sales-boy’s hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, “only got these in a three and then a seven, sold out.”
“That’s a vast difference in sizes, no others in stock? This is a shoe shop isn’t it?” The receipt in Mum’s hand turned into confetti.

We immediately have more information about Mum’s impatience, as she waves the shoe over the other customer’s head. We see the sales-boy is busy, with teetering boxes. We also see the strain between the other customer and her son in two additional sentences. Meg notices only one trainer in the sales-boy’s hand, which adds to the tension. Finally we make an addition that shows the anxiety building inside Meg’s mother, and this is in an unconscious action displayed by her. Think about things you do when you’re anxious and include them in your writing.

Meg’s mum pulls an old receipt, a piece of paper, from her pocket. It’s irrelevant except for the action which will show you her state of mind. She begins to tear it into strips, and the final sentence shows you just how much her anxiety is rising, by the fact that she’s ripped the receipt up into tiny pieces, like confetti.

Meg’s mum’s anxiety grows as the chapter proceeds.

“Stupid boxes…” Mum groaned as she tried to fit the bulky shoes into the tight box.

“And it’s too hot! We come in wearing coats, because it’s winter. Why do they make it so hot?” Mum trembled, her fists clenching and unclenching at her sides.

Meg’s sigh matched her mother’s as she pulled off the shoes. She left her mum to pack them away and moved, in her socked feet, back to the display. Not a moment later she heard a frustrated grunt and a trainer flew past her ear. It rebounded on the wall and knocked three shoes to the ground. Meg ducked and twirled round. Her mother stood, red-faced and furious.

See how the actions clue you up on Meg’s mother’s growing anxiety, irritation and irrational behaviour.

emotion thesaurus, angela ackerman and becca puglisi,

The Emotion Thesaurus – invaluable!

We’re often told to write what we know, and I’m lucky, or unlucky – your call, as I know what anxiety feels like. I’m able to write from experience and convey the very emotions I’ve undergone in my own life in my writing. But what happens if we’ve never experienced the things our characters do? After all, the average murder mystery wasn’t written by a killer! One of the most comprehensive resources I have is The Emotion Thesaurus, it’s invaluable! Written by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, you won’t find a better guide to character expression out there*.

“As writers, we must take our innate skills of observation and transfer them to the page. Readers have high expectations. They don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves. To make this happen, we must ensure that our characters express their emotions in ways that are both recognisable and compelling to read.”
(The Emotion Thesaurus Introduction)

So, fire up your writing, infuse your stories and take me on an adventure…
don’t just tell me, take me with you!

the emotion thesaurus, angela ackerman and becca puglisi,

From The Emotion Thesaurus

Note I have no arrangements or sponsorship through or with The Emotion Thesaurus or its authors, I just believe it’s a darn good book!

Beneath_the_Old_Oak_front_cover_finalTo read more of Meg and her mum’s battles, ‘Beneath the Old Oak’ is available in paperback and eBook on Amazon and Etsy.

‘Turn those dreams of escape into hope…’ Meg thinks her mother is broken. Is she broken too? Meg’s life spirals out of control, and when she mirrors her Mum’s erratic behaviour, she’s terrified she’ll inherit her mother’s sins. Seeking refuge and escape, she finds solace beneath a huge, old oak. A storm descends, and Meg needs to survive devastating losses.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Just Tell Me, Show Me – How to Write with Emotion

    1. schillingklaus

      No, I prefer the telling version as a reader; and so I detest that stupid show-don’t-tell commandmenmt rigorously. None of your propaganda will ever be able to deter me therefrom.

      1. Lisa Shambrook Post author

        Thanks for your comment 🙂 As my title says it’s about getting a balance, not just telling, but showing too. You need both, after all a story cannot be told without telling, but I love to be drawn right into a tale with scent, visuals and total immersion!


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