Angela Ackerman – Show don’t tell pt 2

Describing emotion: balancing show and tell

Body language and action


Internal sensations



Body language

In active storytelling, action is king

93% of all communication is non verbal

  • Primal instinct is at work (constantly aware of our environment)
  • We are all adept body language readers (and so are our story readers)
  • Use body language to convey your character’s comfort zone & emotional range




  • Should be personal
  • Flavoured with who the character is
  • Can only shown in 1st or 3rd person (omniscient does it differently)
  • An open channel to feelings, giving scope and context to what one is experiencing
  • Can show emotional progression. Eg shock to trying to rationalise to disgust to anger (Katniss in Hunger Games)
  • Avoid too much introspection
  • Focus on the source of cause, not the emotion itself
  • Triple duty: show personality, emotion and voice


Visceral reactions

Eg tightness in chest when anxious

Feeling heartbeat in ears

  • Show ‘inside out’ when it counts most – has to be in real order of events
  1. Visceral reaction
  2. Bodily reactions
  3. Thoughts


Visceral reactions are universal, and are powerful. Use sparingly in narrative


  • Think beyond the first thing that comes t mind (avoid cliches)
  • Write fresh imagery (think sensor) by describing what is TRIGGERING the visercal response, building it up for readers


Use emotional memory and sensory word painting to make readers feel what your character feels


Show, don’t tell – in dialogue

  • Use vocal cues (in moderation)
  • Eg talking faster when nervous
  • Incorporate body language beats
  • Body language shows what characters are doing and feeling (that they are not saying)
  • Mimic real life dialogue (interruptions, loose grammar, fragments, etc)
  • Make every word push the story forward – don’t rehash, prompt questions


Ask: what is your character holding back? Sometimes what a character doesn’t say is important


Showing hidden emotion through physical and dialogue tells

  • Vocal tics and tells
  • Body language cues
  • Overreacting or under-reacting
  • Fight or flight response
  • Personal space and posture shifts
  • Sarcasm, deflection and omissions
  • Cancelling gestures


Conveying traits

Who the really are is determined by what they do

  • Every action, decision and choice shows character
  • Force them to make a move, good or bad and then deal with the consequences, propelling the story forward


If a character is reluctant to act..

  • Challenge their moral beliefs
  • Add stress by upping or personalising the stakes
  • Poke wounds using emotional triggers


Revealing personality traits (Hunger games as example)


Pressure points  Hunger games example  Traits shown 
Temptation Bow Analytical and disciplined
Challenges Trapped in the tree Focused and patient
Success Tracker Jacker’s nest Objective and just
Failure Save Rue Efficient and compassionate
Redemption Make Rue mean something to people in the capital Bold, protective and inspirational


Relationships: a powerful landscape for showing


Personality clashes create friction and characterise

  • Helps character arc by revealing flaws and forcing a look within
  • Creates romantic push/pull tension
  • Emotionally closed vs emotionally open characters create tension (clashing with each other but creating tension)


When does telling trump showing? 

There are times when telling is more appropriate:

  • High action, fast paced scenes
  • Time, location or POV leap
  • Revisiting a setting or character that does not change
  • High emotion scenes that risk melodrama
  • Characterising details that do not further the story
  • Emotional repeats repeated exposure to something that elicits the same feeling or reaction)



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