Show, Don’t Tell


How do you get your reader emotionally invested in your character? While it’s simple to rattle off phrases like, “show, don’t tell,” it’s not always that easy to apply. One of the things I used to love to do with my high school English classes is to ask them to identify emotions, feelings or states of being. We make a list on the board. I’ll pick a couple of their ideas on the board and have them think about what a person might do that shows the feeling/emotion/state of being. Sometimes I am met with blank stares. So I’ll start with an easy one, like “cold.”

Telling: It was cold.
Showing: Carla pulled the collar of her jacket tighter around her neck. The huff of her breath formed clouds of steam when she exhaled. She stepped out onto the sidewalk, the snow crunching under her feet.

Telling: Jake felt frustrated.
Showing: Jake slammed his locker closed, the sound reverberating down the hall. He ran a hand through his hair and leaned against the wall. His breath came in short rasps as he pinched his lips together.

Telling: She felt like crying.
Showing: Tara’s lip trembled. Fighting a losing battle with her tears, they rimmed her eyes. One sneaky little drop deserted ranks and ran down her cheek. With a quick swipe of her hand she annihilated the betrayer.

Yes, I make them use a thesaurus! Another activity I use that helps them to show is to model a common activity and then have them write down exactly what they saw. I walk across the room and sit in my chair.
Invariably they write: Mrs. Love walked across the room and sat in her chair.
I let a couple of them read them out loud. BORING! Then I have them pull out their thesaurus and we make a list of all the different ways to say “walk.” We usually end up with a list of 20-30 words. We do the same thing with the word sat. I tell them to get creative with their words.

It’s fun when I get sentences like this:
Mrs Love sauntered across the room and perched in her chair.
Mrs Love strolled across the room and flopped in her chair.

Then I ask them to show anger, or tired, or happy.
Mrs Love stomped across the room and threw herself into her chair.
Mrs. Love dragged herself across the room and sagged into her chair.
Mrs. Love skipped across the room and flung herself into her chair.

Show, Don’t Tell! That easy…

How do you get in touch with your characters feelings/emotions/states of being?