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Emotions can be the most difficult to convey (this is why Becca and I built the Emotion Thesaurus!) Not only do we need to express without telling, we have to show the emotion in a fresh way, make sure it feels genuine and have it match the character's expressive range. Add that to highlighting action and minimizing internal sensations and thoughts? It's a lot to juggle.
Common ways to show emotion:
Physical Action (beats): gestures, movement, ticks & tells that express emotion
Internal Sensations: bodily reaction known only to the POV character
Thoughts: reactive & emotionally charged thoughts caused by stimulus
Dialogue: revealing emotion verbally (and sometimes showing by what is not said!)
POV Narrative: internal musings/reflection delivered by a POV character toward a situation or setting
A balance of these elements creates a satisfying window into the character's emotional state, but too much causes an overload of sensory information. It slows the pace, creates melodrama and disrupts the reader's belief in both the character and the events unfolding.
Over-expressing occurs when we try too hard to reinforce an emotional state to the reader. Here's an example of how this can happen. First, we need an emotion. Let's go with GUILT.
A very simple situation--not a lot is needed to get into Amanda's emotional state, right? Internal and external cues work together.
So what if I did this instead:
Okay, again, this works.
Yep, still showing guilt, blending external cues and thoughts, which gives her guilt a paranoid edge.
Now...what if we put it all together?
WAY too much showing for this simple scenario and a medium level emotion, isn't it? Can you imagine if I'd chosen a situation rife with stronger emotions, like a character running for their life or witnessing a murder?
The trick to finding a good balance of emotional showing is remembering that Readers are smart. They will pick up on the emotion without it being hammered into them. A few strong bits of showing is almost always better than a weighty clump of detail.
Like all areas of writing, this gets easier with PRACTICE. As you hone your Writer's Intuition, you become a better judge of just how many cues are needed to get the character's emotion across. Trust in your showing skills!
ANGELA ACKERMAN is a CC member and Moderator, as well as a co-author of the bestselling writing guide, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression. When she isn't dreaming up cereal monsters or writing about Greek Mythology pychopaths, she blogs at The Bookshelf Muse, a description hub for writers and teachers.