Masking emotions with strong verbs:

The Illusion of Showing

By Jeanne Marie Leach

I recently had an editing client whose work, for the most part, contained vivid word pictures that SHOWED me as a reader what took place in each scene, however, when it came to emotions, she used an unusual technique. After studying these for a while, I came to realize they were TELLING. Here are a few examples of what she wrote:

  • Fear slammed into him.
  • Anger strangled him.
  • Fear shot through him.
  • Fright raced through the boy.
  • Fear grew in the teen.
  • Doubt and fear rose in Kevin’s chest.

This type of descriptions continued through the entire book. While the verbs create the illusion that these are powerful sentences, they really don’t SHOW the reader anything about the fear, anger and doubt the boy felt at that particular time. After reading a few of these, they became annoying to me, and that’s when it dawned on me that this author was merely TELLING the reader the boy was afraid.

When editing a work that includes ambiguous statements like this, ask yourself if this SHOWS you HOW afraid, or doubtful or angry the character is. If it doesn’t give you a clue as to the physical and mental associations with the emotion, then it is TELLING and must be changed.

The most important thing we as readers want from writing is to experience it. If you are unsure whether a certain passage of writing is TELLING, there are some things you can ask yourself that will help you determine if you should change it:

  • Are you allowing the reader to ‘see’ what’s going on in this passage, or are you merely telling us?
  • Does the passage sound more like you are telling us something? If so, can you bring more action into the section to help the reader better understand what a particular character feels?
  • Does the sentence merely name emotions instead of conveying them through action?
  • Do you give us information on how deep an emotion is?
  • Is the author giving the illusion of a powerful sentence instead of actually showing depth?
  • Is a character telling someone else what that character already knows?

Recently I had a writer friend who had a difficult time understanding this concept of showing vs. telling. I used this analogy.

  • Telling is: Once upon a time in a land far away, there lived a fairy princess named Anna who’d been banished by her evil step-father to remain locked in the castle tower all her remaining days.
  • Showing is: Princess Anna paced the circumference of her tower room on the cold stone floor. How could she accept this as reasonable punishment for not living up to her step-father’s standards? Did anyone else know she’d been locked away in this room? Would anyone care?

In conclusion, while there are times an author must TELL the readers something, SHOWING means having characters do things that stimulate our interest. It renders those scenes more visual and lets the reader ‘see’ what happens firsthand.