Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions

Welcome to part three of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series. Part two was about showing a character’s personality. This post will focus on characters again, but this time I will talk about how showing relates to a character’s emotions.

As I said from my previous post, one of your goals as a writer is getting readers to connect with your characters. In real life, we are emotional beings, even the most logical people. We respond and connect to each other’s emotions. Feelings can build relationships. To connect with a character, we have to feel that character’s emotions. To feel emotions, the writer shows them.

In real life, we communicate our emotions, and they’re communicated in three ways: words, tone, and body language. When I was in college, one of my professors said most of our communication come from our body language. I don’t know if that is scientifically true, but body language is one way to show a character’s emotions.

Example 1:
“She was angry.”

Okay, yes, but this line doesn’t help me connect with the character or imagine her.

Example 2:
“As her nostrils flared, she stormed out the door and slammed it shut.”

Okay, now I can see this character. The body language makes the character feel real, and it makes the writing stronger and engaging.

Besides body language, words and tone also communicate emotions. Dialogue is a great tool to show emotions, and an appropriate (although not always necessary) dialogue tag can show tone.

Example 3:
“Are you stupid? I already told you to leave me alone!” she snapped.

I didn’t have even to say that she was angry in this example. When you show emotions, the reader will know what the characters are feeling. There’s almost no need to tell them.
 

Reactions and Personality:
Emotions also show personality, and as I said last post, showing personality will help the readers connect with your characters. In real life, how we handle our emotions and reactions show what kind of people we are. The same is true for characters. The characters’ emotions and how they react to a situation can show a lot about them.

It’s common for two people to be in the same situation but react differently. All emotions have different levels and ranges. Two people could be sad, but one could be quiet and slumped over while the other could be curled up on the floor and wailing. Our emotions can be minimal, or they can be extreme.

Here is one situation but three different reactions. Let’s say Mike is doing his taxes, and they makes him angry, but how angry?

Example A: “He pressed his lips and shook his head.”
Example B: “He cussed and sneered.”
Example C: “He gave up, threw his pen and calculator over his head, and flipped the table over.”

Each example shows some degree of anger. Example A shows frustration. Example B shows anger. Example C shows wrath. Example A also shows Mikes has the will to do his taxes while example C shows Mike is a violent person. All these examples are different.

Showing body language can be hard if you’re a new writer. Here is a list of emotions expressed in body language. I broke each emotion down to mild to extreme. This barely covers all the emotions and body language out there, and if you have ideas to add for this list, please comment below and let me know. Please enjoy.

Anger:

Annoyed/Frustration:
Frowning
Lips pressed
Rolling eyes
Facepalm
Huffy sighs
Flushed face
Veins throbbing
Shaking head
Massaging temples
Running hands through hair
Furrowing brows

Mad:
Crossed arms
Glaring/narrowing eyes
Tense muscles—especially jaw and neck
Scrunching up face
Clenched jaw
Clenched fists—piercing nails into palms
Nostrils flaring
Fuming
Middle finger
Shaking fists
Sneering
Snarling
Slamming palms on table/objects
Sharp movements

Rage:
Flipping things over
Blood boiling
Kicking objects
Throwing things
Any violent behavior—choking, strangling, hitting, punching, slapping

Saddness

Upset/Restraining sadness/Ready to cry:
Quiet demeanor
Hugging oneself, rubbing arms in comfort
Droopy body
Head down
Slumping over
Lower gaze/no eye contact
Frowning
Tears swelling in eyes
A single tear running down cheek
Puffy eyes and glazed face (if already cried)
Knot in chest
Lump in throat

Sad:
Shaky voice
Curled up to knees
Burying head
Hands over face
Trembling lip
Weeping
Crying
Tears streaming

Grieving/Misery:
Trembling/body rocking
Sobbing
Wailing
Curled up on floor
Limp body
Collapsing (when trembling and crying too hard)
Little color in face

Happiness

Excited:
Grinning/smiling
Open body language—willing to hug or lean forward
Giggling/laughing
Humming
Winking
Jumping/bouncing
Skipping
Dancing
Spinning/twirling
Swinging arms
Clasping hands together

Confident:
Firm handshake
Head lift/chin up
Puffing out chest
Standing tall
Shoulders back
Arms out
Eyes forward
Strutting

Triumph:
Fist pump
Holding hands high
Chest bump/fist bump
High-fiving
Jumping
Thumps up
Embracing (teammates or friends)

Fear:

Shyness:
Blushing
Avoiding eye contact
Glancing around or lowering gaze
Folding arms or burying hands in pockets
Keeping distance

Anxious/Nervous:
Fidgeting
Biting lip
Pacing back and forth
Sweating
Leaning back/shrinking back
Swallowing/gulping
Darting eyes
Squirming
Tugging on hems or collar
Scratching oneself, especially neck

Afraid:
Wide eyes
Raised brows
Stepping back
Freezing
Heart pounding or racing
Stomach lurching
Chest constricting or tightening
Breathing rapidly
Cowering/trembling/shuddering
Drained face/pale face
Thoughts racing/can’t think straight

Scared-to-Death:
Fleeing
Fainting/collapsing
Vomiting
Shaking/quivering
Hyperventilating

Surprise:
Dropping jaw
Wide eyes
Staring
Gaping
Gawking
Hands covering mouth
Gasping
Freezing/stopping in tracks
Stepping back
Flinching or jumping back (if sudden noise or surprise)

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 1- Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction
Part 2- Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

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4 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions

  1. This is a fantastic post! I absolutely love your list of ways to show emotion. Such a nice handy tool for a writer. Great thoughts and I definitely will have to make use of some of these!

    Like

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