Craft Exercises: Showing Emotions


Somewhere in the chaos that is my writing space, I have little bags of green cards. These are writing exercises that I create for myself. When I’m reading, or writing, or editing and I come across something that could use a little more practice, I create a little prompt to help develop that skill, chose a target length of time for the prompt (5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes), then put them in the bags and carry on with my day.

Part B of this endeavor (which doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should) is that I choose a card randomly from the bags and complete the exercise. Now, given that these are all trouble-areas with me, many of the attempts are pretty unfortunate. The card goes back in the bag if I don’t think I’ve really accomplished the goal. But the exciting part is that when I scroll through the big document where I collect the exercises, I see improvement. Nothing (in the whole world, ever!) is better than seeing improvement.

Here’s one I did when I noticed a problem I had with the “show don’t tell” principle.

Show exactly how someone feels without saying it
( 10 mins )

 He was sitting on a rock that didn’t look like it could possibly be comfortable. His arm looped around his knees as his eyes surveyed the battlefield. There was a stagnant quality in his usually vibrant green irises. There seemed to be a glassy coating over them, like someone had thrown a plastic sheet over the infected area to keep it from poisoning the rest of the environment.

The red stains were seeping deep into the ground by now, hiding their secrets beneath the earth. The men were in the process of removing the corpses from the field and burning them. Occasionally one would come to him and ask for orders. He had no orders to give, so he just put a soft hand on their shoulder and sent them away.

One or two of the braver or more naïve men came up to ask the captain if he was okay, to which he only lifted the corners of his mouth in the tiniest possible smile and nodded. He hadn’t moved in over an hour. His chin was lifted, back as straight as possible from his position on the rock. When he wasn’t trying to smile at the men, his mouth was held in an even, firm line.

His shoulders weren’t tensed anymore. He was no longer checking over his shoulder every other moment. Now, all of his energy was drawn forward to the scarred field and the men that were slowly dragging the memories of the battle away.


Not perfect, but it gave me the chance to really be conscious of only that one aspect of writing without needing to worry about building a full plot or characters.

I know “show, don’t tell” is pretty standard advice, but I’m still working on training it into my style so that it sounds more natural. This scene, I thought, seemed really disconnected from the character, because I was trying to hard to rely on his body language to show feelings. That would be fine if the story containing this scene was from another POV, but if the Captain is the main storyteller, I feel like it wouldn’t hit the right emotional level, you know?

Candles 060614

I guess it’s hard for me to show emotions without relying solely on how the character looks externally. I want to be able to show things without distancing the reader from the character.

Am I missing something about ‘show, don’t tell’? All thoughts and insights are most welcome!

(Also, if anyone thought it might help them to try the writing prompt themselves, I’d love to know how it worked out for you!)

21 responses »

  1. I like your idea of the writing prompts. Great for practice and for coming up with new story starters. I wasn’t sure from whose point of view the scene was written. It seemed like it was someone other than the captain, someone who was watching him. If you wanted it to be from his POV, you could alter some of the sentences to have him performing the actions. For example, instead of “His shoulders weren’t tensed anymore,” you could say something like “He relaxed his shoulders. He’d finally stopped looking over them every other moment….” It would also help to know his thoughts as he looked out over the battlefield. Knowing what he was thinking would keep the reader firmly in his head. Just an idea, for what it’s worth. 🙂

    • Yeah, I definitely agree with you. I guess I originally wanted it to be from the captains POV, but as a blind reader I wouldn’t have known that. I guess I worried that as soon as I let myself into his head, I’d start dropping lines about how “he felt so heartbroken” when I was supposed to be showing that he feels heartbroken.

      But I think you’re right: there are ways to speak from the character directly and still be showing. Like “He finally stopped looking over them every other moment.” I wouldn’t consider that ‘telling’ but it was still much closer to the character.

  2. That’s a great idea! I think I might try it sometime.

    You’re right by saying ‘show, don’t tell’ is standard advice, but to be honest, it’s actually really hard to grasp. You did it well in the short story though. 😀

    Also, you know with little kids how the teacher tells them to show don’t tell? They either completely fail to do so, or ‘show’ too much. Get what I mean? I sometimes think it’s like that with writers as well, we either completely fail to show don’t tell, or we do too much showing… Getting it just right is hard, and I guess it just takes practice, eh?

    Anyhow great idea!

  3. “like someone had thrown a plastic sheet over the infected area to keep it from poisoning the rest of the environment.”

    That line really socked me in the gut and threw the whole scene into a different place in my head – a very grim, horrible place (which I assume you were going for, given the carnage). GREAT line, very evocative metaphor. Just had to say that.

    Also, LOVE the baggie of exercises idea! I would love to see more about this, it is a really fabulous idea.

    Now then. “Show don’t tell” has kicked my butt since I first heard it. It wasn’t until just recently that I even had it described to me in a way that made real sense instead of being some sort of esoteric writerly mystery that would reveal itself to me when I was ready in the form of spectral dead writing mentor of mine.

    Ahem, anyways.

    I think stepping back from your subject like this is very helpful for figuring out show dont’ tell. Yes, it’s a little awkward, but first go’s usually are. That’s what editing is for, right? So I think you’ve got a good thing going here. If a scene is really jerking you around, try stepping back and writing from this omni-narrator perspective to see what you can see- that way you see what you should show. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Bag of Tricks: an exercise in Show, don’t Tell | Raevenly Writes

  5. Good job with this~ A big help for me is the Emotion Thesaurus, since I also tend to rely mostly on body language. But there are lots of other ways to show emotions too, like through internal feelings/reacitons, dialogue, even the environment and how that character sees it. When you deepen the POV, and add in the characters thoughts too, it can round out the whole “show don’t tell” thing without having to say much else.

    • I reaaally need to get my hands on the Emotion Thesaurus, apparently. I’ve heard so many people sing praises of it. I spy a trip to the bookstore soon…

      I think you’re right. It could be that I’m just taking the word ‘show’ too literally. Like, if I can’t see it, it doesn’t count, but I’m getting the feeling now that there are all sorts of invisible things that can go in there without directly ‘telling’ anything. Thank you!

  6. I like the writing prompts idea. And I agree that ‘show dont’ tell’, boringly standard advice though it is, is also boringly true and does need pretty much constant attention to apply it in practice. I think you did well in your example passage, though as you say it depends heavily on whether the story is being told in that character’s POV. If it was the I think you can afford (in fact, would probably expect) some more direct insight into the character’s thoughts – just not too much. As with all writing rules, ‘show don’t tell’ is a guiding principle but not a blanket prohibition. Most things I read, including published work, has at least some ‘telling’, and sometimes quite a lot. (Occasianally too much in my view.) I think the trick is to tell as little as possible and only when it’s important / best to do it that way. And of course that will always be a subjective judgement. Hence the value of practice and exercises …

    • Yeah… I guess now that I’ve worked with the ‘blanket prohibition’ (which is a fun way of describing it, by the way!) side of it, my next green card would be to work on finding that happy medium so it isn’t too heavy on either showing or telling 🙂

      Oh, the hydra of writing exercises… complete one, and think of three more…

  7. This is a great excerpt 🙂 And great practice! I think the “show don’t tell” expression can be a double-edged sword, so take it with a grain of salt. I also think it is important to show emotion from within the character, not just how they look, so that the reader can really experience it with them.

    • Yeah, you’re probably right. I think that’s where I’ve been misinterpreting the rule: assuming that showing must necessarily mean a visual and nothing else. 🙂 Thanks! I’ll keep that in mind.

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