Showing Emotion

by Adam Nichols

Charles was upset. “I’m so upset,” he hissed at Annabelle, “that I feel like throwing up.” His fists were clenched tight and his face was twisted up. He was really, really upset. 

Not hugely convincing, is it?

The problem here, in part, is the old ‘show don’t tell’ issue. We are simply told that Charles is upset — the classic novice writer’s blunder. We are shown Charles’ upset, too, though: we hear him hiss; we see his clenched fists and twisted-up face. So why does this extract ring so hollow?

Partly because it’s abstracted from any sort of story, which makes it hard to relate to. But there’s more to the problem than just that. It has to do with the nature of emotion.

As writers, we struggle to depict our characters’ emotions in the most convincing and compelling way possible. We know better than to simply write, “Charles was upset.” But emotions — in life and in fiction — can be complex and slippery, and, unless we grossly oversimplify our characters, it’s easy to end up floundering around, groping for a convincing way to depict those characters’ feelings. It’s all very well for somebody to tell us, “Show, don’t tell,” but what, exactly, do we show when we want to convey what our characters are feeling? Wouldn’t it be useful if there was a simple principle that could give us a handle on showing emotion?

Actually, there is.

First, we need to define our terms here. A standard dictionary definition of ‘emotion’ gives us something like this: “a strong feeling about somebody or something.” There’s something implied by this definition that is crucially helpful. Look at what it says: “a strong feeling about somebody or something.”

What’s implied here?

That emotion results from relationship.

Think about that for a moment. Emotion — all emotion — is the result of relationship. We have to have somebody or something to love or hate; we have to have somebody or something to fear or to long for.

Emotion results from relationship.

So how can we, as writers, convincingly depict emotion in our characters?

By describing the relationship that generates the emotion.

That’s what was lacking in the extract about Charles and Annabelle that began things here. There was no clear relationship depicted, and, without a relationship, the emotion — Charles’ upset — didn’t ring true.

Here’s Charles and Annabelle again:  

“I did it,” Charles said. “I quit my job!”

Annabelle just looked at him.

“Like we talked about.” Charles leaned across the kitchen table. “Now there’s nothing holding us back from moving to Europe.” He laughed. “You should have seen Mister Morton’s face when I told him to take his job and stick it where the sun don’t shine.”

Annabelle crossed her arms. “You said that?”

“Yup. Just like in a movie or something. It felt sooooo good.”

“You shouldn’t have said that,” Annabelle said.


“That was stupid, Charles.”

“I don’t…” Charles started

Annabelle took a breath, let it out. “I’ve met somebody else.”


“I’ve met somebody else. His name is Bob. I’ve been trying to find a way to tell you for weeks.”

“But… what about moving to Europe? What about all the plans we’ve been making?”

Annabelle shrugged, looked away from him.

“Moving to Europe was your idea,” Charles said. “You’re the one who said I should quit my job.”

“I never said you should tell Mister Morton to take the job and shove it.”

“I did it for you. For us!”

“There is no us, Charles. Not any more.”

Charles’ fists were clenched and his face was twisted up. “I feel like throwing up,” he said. 

I purposely used a Hemmingwayesque brevity in the extract above — no strongly emotive language, no adjectives or adverbs, everything told objectively, without allowing the reader into the hearts/minds of the two characters. But when Charles says, “I feel like throwing up,” it now makes emotional sense to us as readers. The word ‘upset’ isn’t used. The word ‘emotion’ isn’t used. What has been described — in the briefest possible way — is the relationship that gives rise to the emotion.

I’m not trying to champion the spare style here. I’m just trying to illustrate the point in the shortest possible way. A relationship can be described in any level of detail, but the key is to describe the relationship — not just the twisted faces or clenched fists, the smiles or tears, the laughs or raised voices. Those sorts of descriptive details might reflect the emotions felt by our characters, but they don’t generate those emotions. A character can twist up her face or clench his fists or shout or cry or laugh… but these things by themselves aren’t what grab our readers by the heart. It’s the relationships between characters that generate convincing emotions.

If you describe those relationships in a sufficiently convincing way, the emotions then follow, in both your characters and your reader — inevitably.

Adam Nichols is an Adjunct Associate Professor with the University of Maryland, where he teaches writing. He has published five novels with Orion/Gollancz, U.K. and a non-fiction book, a translation of a 17th century memoir of an Icelander captured by Barbary Pirates and taken to North Africa to be sold into slavery.

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