THE POWER OF EMOTION or Show Don’t Tell Part 1

I want to take a swing at this discussion from the back door. Most writers who have been around published authors or professionals in the writing field, will have heard the term, “show don’t tell”.

While telling a story (which may or may not be done by employing the omniscient point of view) in narrative isn’t illegal, it isn’t all that exciting, either. It will leave the writing flat and lackluster which in turn, may result in your reader putting down your book and never again reaching for anything with your name on it. But why? Because showing is more active. It involves the reader.

Searching for the words and phrasing to make every page sparkle and engage the reader is an edit that no writer should skip. And the primary reason isn’t just the color and pacing that the right words can add to a story. In my opinion, the biggest function of “showing” the reader is to build an emotional connection with them. Look at the picture above – is she angry? Heartbroken? Confused? Our books don’t have pictures – our words have to paint them clearly and powerfully for the reader.

Let’s take a quick look this.

Telling: Paula sat on the park bench, head in her hands. Her father was dead and she had no idea how to move on. Her friend tried to comfort her, but she knew how hard it would be. 

Showing through the character: Paula sat on the park bench, head in her hands. Her only ally in a family of piranhas was dead. She’d have to start a life of her own—on her own. But how? Her father had always seen that she’d had all she needed. She choked on a sob. She didn’t have a clue where to start. Daddy, how could you?


Showing through dialog: “Paula?” Jessica asked, sitting beside her on the bench.

“What?” came the muffled response.

“What are you doing out here alone in the dark? Can I help?”

Paula lifted her tear-streaked face from her hands and shook her head.  The cold had seeped into her bones. “No, no one can help, now. I just can’t believe he’d dead…”

Jessica patted her friend on the shoulder. “I know honey, I’m sorry. So sudden you couldn’t even say goodbye. But you’re going to be okay, I know you are.”

Paula clutched her long black mink around her. “I’m glad that you’re so sure. But I’m not. I can’t live in that house with him gone and I don’t have any idea how to leave.”

While these may not be the most in-depth examples, you can get my point. There are multiple ways to show the emotions that a character is experiencing, but there is ONE sure way to lose your reader – and that’s to ignore the power of emotion in your writing. The function of “show don’t tell” is to engage the reader on many levels. Word choices and writing devices to promote engagement include employing all the senses, such as sight, taste, smell, and touch – to help build emotional connections with the reader.

The senses trigger memories and memories trigger emotions and emotions bond us to one another. Now, that bond can be negative or positive, but it will be powerful. And powerful writing is what keeps readers turning the pages and buying your books. 

Opening that vein on the paper is a metaphoric concept of this fact: if you work to keep yourself OUT of your writing, that lack of humanity, emotion and three-dimentionalism will translate to ho-hum writing – and readers who won’t be back.

Be willing to “bleed” a little. Make us gasp for air when your hero is socked in the solar-plexus with a truth! Make us cry when your heroine’s heart is broken. Make us feel the cold on that park bench (which is metaphoric as well.) You’ve got to be willing to be a little exposed and vulnerable to write emotional scenes that will stay with your reader, but it’s worth it!

(Note: If you ever get the chance, take the opportunity to hear editor/author Anne Walradt do her workshop on this topic. It will NEVER leave you – and it covers a lot more than this!)

Keep reading and writing! See you on Wednesday. Nancy Q.


About NL Quatrano

Award-winning author, speaker, editor and ghost writer, Nancy owns a full-time editing, writing and specialty publishing business: On-Target Words/WC Publishing. Volunteer/member of professional writing organizations including Florida Writers Assoc., Sisters in Crime, and AWAI. 2010 Professional Woman of the Year by the NAPW. Linked in Editor Pick May 2013. International Women's Leadership Association nominee for Outstanding Leadership 2014.
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2 Responses to THE POWER OF EMOTION or Show Don’t Tell Part 1

  1. Skye-writer says:

    So true! Suck us in and make us care. If you don’t, we’ll put the book down and move in. Great blog.

    • NL Quatrano says:

      Here, the teacher is also the student. I don’t struggle nearly as much with transitions as I once did (THANK YOU, May McGoldrick and Anne Walradt) but I still struggle with getting the emotions on paper for the reader. My personal conflict is knowing where there is too much (I am not much for melodrama) or too little (I prefer not to show my own heart on my sleeve). I don’t finish books I don’t like any more – I once did, no matter what, but not any more. There are too many I want to read and write, so I don’t give my time like that any more, but if a character is too weepy and whimpy, I’m done. I can tolerate one who is almost stoic even, especially if there is a lot of action, but I can’t do the sappy, oh-my-what-will-I-do characters. I just want to scream, “Suck it up and move on, kiddo.” And, as you often tell me, there is the right balance that allows readers inside enough to understand, relate and therefore care. And that’s what this was all about! Thanks so much for your great comment.

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