Monday, April 11, 2011

Never Name Emotions. Seriously

Quote of the Day:  "The place for truth is not in the facts of a novel; it is in the feelings." ~Mary Stewart
Song of the Week: "Take Everything" ~ Greg Laswell

Never Name Emotions: a little soapbox I've been on lately...

How many times have we heard, “Show don’t tell”? So many times that it goes in one ear and out the other? So often that we’ve stopped considering what that really means?

Here’s one quick and easy way to spot telling: Any time you use the name of an emotion to describe the emotion, it’s usually telling.

Examples of telling:

Anger burned inside me.

Relief flooded through her. (Any time an emotion moves through a character’s body, it’s telling.)

A melancholy sadness filled Amy’s soul like the last song of the whippoorwill. (Definitely better than the first two, but still telling.)

“I hate you,” John said angrily.

The goal instead, is to SHOW us how those emotions feel, what they look like, what they sound like. As a writer, my job is to let the reader think for themselves and not to force emotions down their throat.

You never see a movie where the actor says, “I’m so upset, I’m going to push myself away from this table angrily.” So why would you do it in a book?

When you find yourself writing the name of an emotion, ask yourself, “Can I show this in a better way?” And then rewrite it until you can.

Let’s try again:

I clenched my fists. (Perhaps a little cliché, but it works.)

She leaned back in the chair, her shoulders relaxing for the first time since Jaden disappeared.

Amy sat on the back porch resting her chin on her knees. The last song of the whippoorwill carried across the frosty fields, empty now that the harvest was over. …

“I hate you!” John turned and slammed the door. Jane cringed with every footstep as he stomped down the stairs.

Writers get away with naming emotions all the time. And sometimes it’s okay. Sometimes you just need to say happy, mad, confused, hate. But be careful! Too much, and it quickly becomes hard for the reader to swallow.


  1. Howdy! Ah, show don't tell. It's like a chant in my head. Thanks for the reminder. :)

  2. Hi Julie, those are good reminders and great examples! I look forward to more of your writing!

  3. I always hear your voice in my head. "Don't name emotions," it says hauntingly.

    Dread of your reading my chapter floods over me. I quickly delete, and later sigh in relief.