February 29, 2016

How to Show Not Tell

By Michael H. Thompson

Most fiction writers struggle a bit with “showing” instead of “telling” their reader what’s happening with their characters. While this subject has been written to death, I want to talk about a useful took I found to help me figure out how to “show” not “tell.”

Its title is The Emotion Thesaurus—A Writer’s Guide to Character Expressions. (No, I have no financial interest in this book whatsoever.)

Here’s a snippet from the book’s introduction: “All successful novels, no matter what genre, have one thing in common: emotion. It lies at the core of every character’s decision, action, and word, all of which drive the story. Without emotion, a character’s personal journey is pointless. Stakes cease to exist. The plot line becomes a dry riverbed of meaningless events that no reader will take time to read … As writers, we must take our innate skills of observation and transfer them to the page. Readers have high expectations. They don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves.”

The Emotion Thesaurus provides seventy-five emotions to give us plenty of ways to “show-not-tell” through three different means—physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensations. The book explains in detail these three emotional reactions.

From adoration to agitation, and unease to worry, the seventy-five emotions offer suggestions in the three means mentioned above.

Here’s just one example: Anxiety. PHYSICAL SIGNALS: Rubbing the back of the neck, crossing the arms, standing with one arm holding the other at the elbow, fingering a necklace, adjusting clothes as if they chafe, and twenty more examples. INTERNAL SENSATIONS: restless legs, increased thirst, accelerated breathing … and a half-dozen others. MENTAL RESPONSES: self blame, seeking reassurance from others, replaying the events that caused the anxiety, time feeling like it’s slowing down, and plenty of other suggested ways to “show-not-tell” about the character’s anxious mental state.

The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, is also full of other helpful writer tips.

I use this book often, and recommend it to writers. It’ll improve your writing.
Michael Thompson was a successful ad agency owner, winning numerous national and international awards. After selling his firm in 2011, Michael turned his attention to full-time writing. His latest novel is The Rector, available on Amazon in print, on Audio Book, and Kindle. Combine a suspenseful murder mystery with theology and that’s The Rector. “High stars for a Christian mystery that reads like a thriller.”~~ H.S. Dale, author. Two graphic novels on the life of David from the Old Testament–DAVID–The Illustrated Novel came first(Volume 2-won first place BEST GRAPHIC NOVEL and BEST INTERIOR DESIGN2012, from USA Book’s INTERNATIONAL BOOK AWARDS. Volume 1 won the Silver IPPY for Graphic Novels in 2011 from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.) Next was a sci-fi thriller (CLOUDS ABOVE) that was serialized in a monthly magazine for a year. (Out in book in 2016.) Michael writes Christian novels that entertain, intrigue, and shine a light on his Jesus. He’s a member of the ACFW, Mystery Writers of America, The International Crime Writers Association, and the Southern Writers Association. Visit his website, to learn more.

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