I’m sure you’ve heard the advice “show, don’t tell,” but do you really understand it? Are you telling when you could be showing, especially with your character’s emotions?
Gestures are one of the best techniques a writer can use to show emotion or attitude of a character. Especially around dialogue, adding a gesture or look is much more powerful than telling the reader how a character says something. Here are two different ways to write the same moment in a scene:
Show, Don’t Tell… Telling
“These are late,” she said disapprovingly.
Show, Don’t Tell… Showing
She looked over her glasses at me and frowned. “These are late.”
Not only is the second example better writing (no adverb), the writer puts the reader in the shoes of the point-of-view character, and the reader is in the scene, seeing what is happening. In one sentence the story comes alive.
Make sure your character doesn’t constantly do the same exact thing. Sure, it’s good if she has character markers—something she does consistently. But beware, this can easily turn into overuse! How many times have you read a book and thought, if she rolls her eyes one more time, I’m going to scream! Or, one more tuck of a strand of hair behind her ear and I’m done! Action puts your reader smack-dab in the middle of the story, but don’t overuse a gesture or your reader will be yanked out in frustration.
Not only does a gesture plant the reader directly into a story, but action is a way to convey emotion without pounding the reader over the head with on-the-nose telling. There are hundreds of gestures so spend time working on them in your writing.
Think of a head (well—not severed unless you are writing horror!) and all the ways a character can convey emotion through what is happening from the shoulders on up. Let’s not even count the facial expressions, but just look at how much power a slight movement has in communicating emotion.
Even slight movements can show don’t tell.
- When a character thrusts her chin out, it lets the reader know she’s determined, defiant.
- A head tilt to the side can convey thought or contemplation; the character is interested in what she sees. We know what’s going on inside that character because of an outside movement.
- What if your character drops his head and looks down at his feet? What is he avoiding? Is he embarrassed? Depressed? Adding this gesture to dialogue and action will tell the reader exactly what is going on inside this character.
- What about a teenage boy who ducks his head, hunches his shoulders, and passes a group of kids as fast as he can without actually breaking into a run? In the context of a story, this tells what this character is thinking and how he feels about the other kids in the group he is passing.
And that’s only the character’s head! As a writer, you have the entire body of your characters to convey emotions without words. My advice is this: get a good book on body language, and the next time you want to convey emotion in a scene, show it!
Click here for more writing tips to power up your prose.