Tag Archives: show vs tell

Make Readers Care: Creating Emotions in Readers

7977102431_1b9d99abf5_zYesterday, I finished a novel where I felt that the author kept me at arm’s length for the entire book. This made me ambivalent about the characters, even though the setting and plot were incredibly unique. But since I didn’t care for the characters my overall enjoyment of the story went down and it was relatively easy for me to stop reading and do other things.

On the other hand, I’ve read books where the plot was unoriginal and the setting vague, however since the characters were engaging I enjoyed the books immensely more than I did the novel I finished a day ago.


Because I cared about the characters. They made me emotional. I laughed, sometimes cried, got angry, etc. I felt their emotions.

The story moved me.

How can you make readers feel emotions?

One way is to write in such a way that readers can picture what is happening. It’s one thing to state, “Jeffery was sad.” It’s another thing to show Jeffery sitting on the edge of his bed, the shades drawn to block the sunlight, and staring at a half-crumpled photograph of his deceased wife.

Another way is to make sure readers sympathize with the characters. Readers won’t care if Jeffery is sad if he’s a serial killer. They will care about him if he’s a hard-working dad, whose wife – his high school sweetheart and the love of his life – just died of cancer last week.

Readers need to be able to identify with the characters. This doesn’t mean that readers have to literally share experiences with the characters. Not everyone has had a wife that’s died of cancer. However, people can relate to a lost love, whether that’s a parent, a sibling, a friend, a spouse, etc.

An important point to note is that readers won’t identify emotionally with a character from the get-go. First, readers must become tied in some way with the characters. They must be grounded in the story. This includes knowing the setting, picturing the characters, understanding at least the beginning of the plot, and getting to know the characters’ hobbies, goals, fears, etc.

What are some of the ways you create emotions in readers?

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Conor Keller.)

Ka-Pow! Writing Action Scenes in Novels

Think back to some of the most exciting scenes in novels you’ve read. Most of those scenes probably have a lot of tension and include some sort of action. I can think of Harry Potter facing off with Voldemort, Katniss with the tracker jackers, sword fighting in The Princess Bride, the Battle of the Hornburg (aka Battle of Helm’s Deep) from The Lord of the Rings, Fight Club, etc.


What is it about these scenes that make them memorable? Why are they successful?

  1. They are fast-paced.

A quick pace makes for heightened tension…and readers flipping through pages because they want to know what’s happening. Just make sure you don’t move so fast that readers get lost. You want your characters, and the plot, to move forward. Sometimes you want there to be chaos – for instance, if you’re writing a war scene with soldiers and explosions – but you want an organized chaos. You, as the author, need to know what’s going on at all times, even if your characters don’t.

  1. They advance the plot.

Action scenes can and should provide vital pieces of information, whether it’s about the protagonist or the antagonist. They should move the plot forward. If an action scene doesn’t serve a purpose, why is it in the book? To just show how cool the protagonist is? That’s not a very good reason on its own. However, too much information becomes extraneous, can slow down the pace, and clog up the action. During action scenes concentrate on the main characters, their senses, emotions, and movements, and the new piece(s) of information.

  1. The protagonist is forced to take decisive action/make quick decisions.

Whenever the protagonist is forced to make decisions based on instinct rather than logical analysis, the tension ratchets up. Instinctual responses, such as fight or flight, create faster responses, quicker pacing, and can produce unexpected consequences (both good and/or bad). By having unexpected consequences as a result of an action scene, drama is increased.

  1. They have an underdog.

UnderdogHave you ever seen a wrestling match? It’s pretty boring. Whenever you have two or more evenly matched opponents the stakes aren’t high enough for the action scene. There needs to be an underdog, and that underdog must find a way to rise above the odds and win. If the underdog (most likely your protagonist) is fighting to stay alive, to save another’s life, for freedom, or for some other purpose, then readers have someone to root for. More than that, readers have someone they want to root for.

  1. Characters are revealed.

How the protagonist fights, whether he chooses to fight or not, etc. shows readers a lot about the protagonist. You know the old saying of actions speak louder than words? It applies here. Your protagonist might be a black belt or have served in the military, but may choose to not fight. Knowing that the protagonist could seriously injure the opponent, but chooses not to says a lot about that character. Same goes for someone who would rather mind her own business, but then sees an injustice occurring and can’t let it go.

When a character is forced to make quick decisions, his true personality comes out. This is because he doesn’t have time to think about what he should show the world. He doesn’t think about what he wants to show the world. He just acts.

Bottom line: think about what you’re saying/showing about your characters through their actions.

  1. The fighting/action is unique.

I read a novel a while ago where within the first five chapters there were two action scenes. However, they were nearly identical, and both ended with the same result. It was repetitive and unnecessary. When you have action scenes, make them unique. Each scene should have a different outcome. Make each fight/action scene (because fight and action scenes aren’t always once and the same) special. You want readers to remember each action scene. If they can’t, then you need to go back and make sure each conflict is solved in a different manner.

  1. The scene(s) can be visualized and felt.

fraser1Give a close in view of the fight. Does the protagonist hear her jacket being ripped? Does she taste blood in her mouth? Is there a crack of a bone breaking? What’s going on her head? Providing both external and internal images and feelings allow readers to experience the action along with the protagonist. Plus, by keeping a close in view (think of it as pulling a camera in close) you heighten tension. The protagonist may not know what happened to her partner or the person she’s trying to protect. There may be so many attackers or so much going on that she can’t see more than a few feet in any direction.

Something to watch out for is balance. Action scenes are great. They’re necessary in stories, but they must be balanced out by other scenes. If there are too many action scenes, or if the action scene stretches on too long, readers will skim the scene in order to find out what happens.

For clarity in action scenes, why not try blocking them out? Use your friends and/or family. Have them each take on the role of a character and stage them in a room or backyard. Move them around as you would actors or chess pieces. This will help you visualize the scene and will allow you to hear input from your friends/family about whether or not they think a character’s movements are realistic.

Remember each character, no matter how small of a role they play, have motivations, dreams, fears, and goals. Their movements, especially in tension-filled action scenes reflect all those things.

What’s the most important part of an action scene to you?

(Photos courtesy of Yellow Hall StudioJeremy Epstein, and Reeling.)

And the Morning Sky was Red: The Art of Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing increases dramatic tension within a novel. It builds anticipation, adds suspense, and drops hints to readers. With small details we can indicate that things could go wrong. Sometimes those things do. Sometimes not. The point of foreshadowing is to help keep readers interested.

There are a few things to be aware of when foreshadowing:

  • Don’t be overly obvious. Heighten expectations, but keep readers guessing. You can also mislead readers (as long as it’s justified) by making them believe that one thing will happen, when something else actually occurs. For instance, instead of person A shooting person B, person A shoots himself.
  • Don’t break your promises to readers. When you foreshadow that something big is going to happen, you can’t back out. For example, if you lead readers to believe that a major character will escape death, readers will be disappointed, and probably mad, if you kill off that character.

There are many ways to foreshadow effectively. Here’s a list of some of the ways:

  • Name a coming event. Not the most subtle technique, but by naming an event and indicating why it’s going to be problematic, readers will anticipate the upcoming event, and will want to see how it’ll play out.
  • Use symbolism. Something as simple as “the leaves fell early that year” (A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway) implies something is going to happen. Having a group of kids playing “Ring Around the Rosie” could be another sign. What’s great about symbolism is it can be very subtle. The character(s) may not pick up on the foreshadowing, but readers will.
  • Prophecies. In real life, a lot of people don’t believe in crystal balls, horoscopes, and the like. But in novels, nothing is meaningless. If something is included in a book, it’s important.
  • Apprehension. Describing someone as sweaty or tense, or with shaking limbs, or having an uneasy look all indicate to readers that a big event is about to occur. Seeing that the characters are apprehensive, will make readers apprehensive.

Foreshadowing allows us to guide readers’ expectations. It helps us to prepare them for what’s to come. Heavy foreshadowing is used for the biggest events within the novel. This type of foreshadowing starts early on in the book and continues throughout, until the major event. Light foreshadowing is used for smaller events, and can be used to “poke” readers, reminding them that the big event you foreshadowed in the first chapters is finally about to happen.

Just remember not to go overboard with foreshadowing. Let the reader do the work. (Readers are usually very good at interpreting information and reading between the lines. They’ll get bored if you point out every little thing to them.)

What do you think of foreshadowing?

“It’s Alive!!!” Bringing Your Characters to Life

One part of successful books is building believable characters. When readers are reluctant to leave behind characters they’ve grown attached to, writers know they’ve done something right.

When characters seem like real people, readers are more willing to get invested in the story. If readers believe in the characters, they’ll believe the rest of the novel. Think of Sherlock Holmes, Scarlett O’Hara, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Gandalf. Chances are even if you haven’t read the novels in which these characters appear, you’ve heard of them.

To create believable characters, you need to know them intimately. The clearer and more lifelike they are to you, the more realistic they’ll be to the reader. When you know your characters well enough, you’ll know how they think, feel, act and react. You’ll know who they are.

Creating a biography or a character chart helps to flesh out your characters. However, sometimes the sketch you’ve created doesn’t fit into the story you want. If that happens, see if that character really belongs in your story, or if there’s something that needs to be changed about that character. Don’t force characters into a story. Don’t stick a cube in a circular hole.

There are three basic aspects to creating believable characters:

  • Physical. People’s first impressions of someone are based on their appearance. Skin type, height, eye color and shape, hair color and type, age, weight, body type, state of health, body and vocal language (how does he walk and speak), and dress.
  • Sociological. Character’s connections to the world. Family, education, social status, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, friends, general relationships with others, job/profession, etc.
  • Psychological. Character’s personality. Temperament, passions, talents, bad habits/vices, hopes and fears, outlook on life, psychological disorders, and emotions.

After these three aspects are applied, flesh out the character’s past and future. Characters aren’t usually born at the beginning of a novel. They’ve had experiences and relationships before page one. All that’s happened to them influences who they are during the course of the novel. Let the back story show through in how the character interacts and responds to other characters and situations. Even for minor characters, create the impression that they have a life beyond the bit part they play in the novel.

Give your characters emotions and contradictions. Knowing the lives and personalities of characters is telling. Knowing how they feel about those details is even more telling. A character’s emotions and thoughts are what truly make him real. For example, Suzie is dieting because she wants to lose ten pounds, but there’s was this big, chocolate fudge sundae that spoke to her at lunch. She couldn’t ignore its siren call.

Another part of creating realistic characters is having them act believably. If they act out of character, it will undermine the story’s credibility. Make sure your character is consistent, his actions fit his motivation, the risks are balanced by the payoff, and his actions come from his emotions and intellect.

Finally, show your characters in action. In real life, people don’t get to know others by reading their bios. Sure, we learn some about their background, but we don’t really know a person until we see what he does. What readers see and hear for themselves is more powerful than what the author explains to them.

Readers are intelligent people. They don’t need every little thing explained to them. They’ll be able to pick up on characters from watching and listening.

What do you do to create believable characters?

Showing Vs. Telling

Show don’t tell is a piece of advice most writers have heard of. But what does this mean in practical terms?

First off, exposition is useful in your writing, as long as you don’t over-indulge.

Fiction is about creating an emotional link between the author’s story and the reader. As the author, we want to help readers create a “suspension of disbelief,” meaning the readers move past the fact that our stories are fabrications.

To do this, we make fiction as plausible as possible and go for the readers’ emotions over their intellect.

One of the top ways to accomplish these two acts is to show the reader what’s happening, instead of telling them.

Telling catalogs emotions and actions. Showing makes the reader feel like they’re in the story. It activates the fives senses, or at least some of them. It’s what the characters do and say that convinces the reader.

Work with immediate physical and emotional actions: wind whipped her cheeks, his face went ashen, a fist curled in her gut.

Use verbs to carry the description. There are so many verbs out there that it’s wrong to ignore them.

Maria walked down the hallway. VS. Maria slinked down the hallway.

The second sentence gives the reader a clearer image of Maria and her mood.

As different verbs can drastically alter the way a reader interprets a scene, sentences can too. Be wary of telling readers how to feel in a sentence. Don’t tell the reader to be surprised, shock the reader with your words.

Think of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. With the line, “The tiny insect-crawl of the second hand was the last thing she saw before the lights went out,” Harris focuses our attention before causing something to happen that makes us jump. Harris shows us something unexpected instead of telling us it’s unexpected.

Showing results in more writing than telling does. But that helps to relieve ambiguity. If we say that the house looked old, the reader is left wondering what “old” looks like in this context.

Saying that the house is choked with vines, its paint flaking, a few of its support beams peeking through the cracks, and its heavy, velvet curtains moth-ridden gives a much stronger image.

Dialogue is also a useful tool in showing, not telling. It can suggest a character’s background, self-image, intelligence, personality, etc.

For example, Jace Wayland’s character in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones:

  • “And next time you’re planning to injure yourself to get my attention, just remember that a little sweet talk works wonders.”
  • Clary: “Don’t. I’m not really in the mood right now.” Jace: “That’s got to be the first time a girl’s ever said that to me.”

These two examples show Jace’s arrogance and charisma, and that he’s a bit self-centered.

However, there are a few arguments for telling instead of showing. One is briefness. As stated earlier, showing shoots up word count. If an event in your novel is relatively unimportant, it might be better to tell it. Two is recounting events. If your character is retelling an event that readers are already familiar with, don’t spend a ton of time on it. Gloss over it and get to the next big surprise.

For the most part, stick with showing, not telling. Vivid writing grabs readers’ attention. It draws them into the story.

Showing is a vital component of creating vivid stories that suck the reader into your world. So, remember these points when writing:

  • Don’t tell readers how to feel, evoke their emotions
  • Use strong and specific verbs
  • Use expressive dialogue that shows off characters’ attitudes and emotions
  • Use well-placed details to activate the senses

One last thing: If there’s a moment in your story or a story you’re reading where you don’t feel convinced, those are moments that are being told instead of shown.

Any specific novels that come to mind that tell instead of show? How about show instead of tell?