Body parts ground writing and increase its visual and visceral impact —Priscilla Long

Showing, Not Telling

Writers are often advised that good writing involves showing, not telling. But it can be a struggle to convey complex emotions in ways that feel clear and comprehensible. In my experience, the best way to do this is to ground the information in the body, and the more specific, the better.

What Is A Telling Sentence?

A telling sentence would simply be one in which you told the reader how the character feels. If your character feels anxious, you state, “Claire felt anxious.” Or the character might state, “I feel so anxious!” But we often know when someone—particularly someone we care about—is feeling anxious without any words spoken. How?

An Example Of Showing 

Emotions show up as physical symptoms. For example, there are many ways that a body can respond to the feeling of anxiety. We are all familiar with the queasy, almost hollow empty feeling in the stomach. But there can also be stiffness in the facial muscles. The shoulders might hunch. I know when I’m terribly anxious because my hands hurt. Why? Because I clench them unconsciously. Sometimes, the tips of my toes will feel numb. My chest constricts. Any of these could be the seed of information. Instead of saying, “She felt tense,” I might choose to have a character realize that her hand is clenched and then slowly, consciously unfold her fingers to study the imprint of the fingernail on her palm. This description conveys clear and explicit action, but it also carries implicit information—that the character is tense or angry.

A Writing Exercise For Showing Instead Of Telling

If you’re interested in experimenting with this technique in a scene, start by labeling the emotion as clearly as possible. You can use a thesaurus to name it precisely. For example, being anxious could be: distressed, concerned, fearful, nervous, restless, or many other more exact labels. Once you are clear on the exact emotion, brainstorm different ways this might show up in the body. Use your own body as a prompt. Scan your face, your neck, your shoulders, your arms, your fingers right down to the tip, scan your chest, your lungs, your heart, your hips, your legs, your knees (front and back), your feet, your toes. Think about each place in your body and remember if you have ever felt anxiety there. If yes, get more specific. If you have felt fearfulness in your face, was it along the cheekbone? Deep in the muscle along the jaw? At the base of the teeth? This list will give you options for your scene. There’s no need to overdo—one strong description is better than a whole body on fire with descriptions.