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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Showing, Telling, Emotions and More in Writing

Here it is once again. Showing or Telling. No matter how many times writers are urged to show rather than tell, too many continue to tell the tale. Some even write a story like it was a report. This happened, then this happened and on and on. 

When the reader finishes the story, he/she might feel like the story was a report in a newspaper. Journalists are taught to relate the facts. They don't worry about the reader feeling the story. But those who write fiction or creative non-fiction, need to learn to show far more than they tell to bring out feeling in their readers.

I need to back up a bit. There are journalists who write human interest stories that bring us far more than the facts. They delve into the personal side of a factual story. Even in those articles, I find more telling than showing but I have also been moved by what was written.

If you write a scene and say that a strong wind blew as Ellen walked.  it's telling. If you write the scene and say something like Ellen bent over and put one heavy foot in front of the other. She moved slowly into the wind, squinting her eyes to keep the dirt away. Her hair whipped wildly around her face as the force of the wind increased. The reader is far more likely to understand what Ellen experienced. 

As a reader, I am almost always going to feel more emotion if you show me what the character is enduring or experiencing. Just tell me about it and my reaction might be, Okay, what's next? But if you show me and let me feel what the character is feeling, I might find the same emotion as that character, whether it be love, joy, fear or anger. 

When you read a book that is hard to put down, the author has probably written so that you are living the story with the characters. He/she didn't just relate a story, step by step. 

If the writer doesn't put some emotion into his/her writing--helped by showing rather than telling--the reader is not going to have any emotion either. When someone in my writing group subs a story, she will often ask those critiquing if the emotion came through. Writers know that is important but they don't always achieve it to their own satisfaction.

The same situation is true when using sensory details. As the quote above says, the fact that it is raining is just that--a fact. And the author told you that. If you can write the scene with enough sensory details so that the reader can feel that rain, then you've achieved something all writers hope to do.

After you've written a chapter or a long scene, put it away for a day or two. Read it later with an objective eye, the way your readers might see it. How much did you tell? How much did you show and bring out emotion and sensory details that help the reader feel what the characters feel? You're still in the midst of writing so it can be fixed if you're willing to take the time and make the effort required. 


  1. Thank you, Nancy, for a superior discussion of 'voice in writing'. You are right in that authors need to get into their stories to elicit emotion from their readers. If we can grasp the music of the language and make our words come alive on paper, readers will take note and return for more.

    1. Thanks, Jeanne, for your comment. Long ago, a writer who was critiquing my work told me I'd already found my 'voice' but at that initial stage of my writing, I didn't have a clue as to what she meant. I learned later how extremely important it is.