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Monday, September 30, 2019

When to "Tell" Emotions

Over the years, I've written a lot of posts about emotions, how to get them on the page, how to get them in the reader, how strong they should be and when, and so on. Writing an emotionally powerful story is super important, but honestly, other than Angela and Becca at Writers Helping Writers, I don't see a ton of solid advice on how to actually infuse your story with it.

In the past, I've talked about how one of the most important things is to create an empathetic experience in the reader, so they feel like they are experiencing those emotions instead of just reading about them. This is equivalent to the "Show, don't Tell" rule, even if "showing" emotions, is often less about describing them, and more about describing what causes them and/or getting into the deepest POV penetration available.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that usually if you want to have your audience have a very powerful emotional experience, you write in a way that allows them to vicariously feel those emotions, rather than just "telling" the audience what emotions were felt (i.e. Patricia was sad).

However, like the traditional "Show, don't Tell" rule, if you never "tell" the audience what emotions characters are feeling, you run into some problems. So today, I want to talk about when you should absolutely consider simply telling the audience your characters' emotions, or at least simply demonstrating them in a short amount of space.

1. It's Important for the Audience to Know the Emotion, but Not Necessarily to Experience it.

Sure, for a powerful story, we want our audience to experience the same emotions as our protagonist (usually). If a character is devastated, we want our audience to feel devastated.

But sometimes the point isn't to experience the emotion. Sometimes the point is just to know about it.

I've used this example elsewhere, but in The Hunger Games, after Katniss shoots the apple out of the pig's mouth, Collins writes something like, "I cried about it all afternoon." In that instance, it's not important that the audience feels like crying. It's just helpful to know that Katniss did.

Not all of the protagonist's emotions will be important enough to experience. Some of them are just important to know.

2. Pacing

If Collins had instead tried to write a whole passage to elicit those feelings in the audience, it would have taken up a lot more space, and therefore would have slowed the story's overall pacing. Sometimes pacing is more important than feelings (especially if you are going so slow that the audience doesn't feel the intended feelings anyway because they are yawning).

With that said though, depending on the setup of the scene, you can sometimes elicit emotion in very few words. Other times? Well, it might be best to just say "I cried about it all afternoon."

3. Emotional Context

Context is the stuff that helps us accurately interpret and understand what's going on in the story. Usually, the viewpoint character provides the audience with needed context.

In some passages, the audience needs emotional context to properly interpret the narrative. This may be especially true of speculative fiction, where the audience may be encountering other worlds, cultures, and customs. For example, when Harry sees someone walk out of a picture frame for the first time in the Wizarding World, he looks to Ron in surprise. Ron says, unconcerned, "Well, you can't expect him to hang around all day." Ron's nonchalance clues us into the fact that this is normal for the Wizarding World (while Harry's surprise validates our own).

In similar ways, your viewpoint character's emotions may provide context for how readers are supposed to view the world and certain situations. A lot of times, the best way to get this across, is to just tell us straight out what the character is feeling, rather than try to get the audience to feel that way (which would be extremely difficult if the subject matter was otherworldly).

4. Emotional Validation

In the last example, I mentioned that Harry's surprise validates our own. If Harry wasn't surprised, we'd probably think he was odd, or maybe that there is something wrong with us for having that response.

Sometimes you need to simply address and tell emotions in order to validate the audience's. If something really terrifying happens, and the viewpoint character or protagonist doesn't show any sign of emotion, we might be left scratching our heads. Were they terrified? Is there something wrong with them? Did we misunderstand how that passage should be read?

Validation and context often interrelate. You can learn more about validating the audience here.

5. Hooks

Sometimes the best hooks address emotions directly. Something like, "When William went to sleep last night, he hadn't expected to wake up in terror," can have readers drooling to read on. Or perhaps, "As Emily stared into Jack's eyes, she thought this must be what it felt like to fall in love with a villain." Or maybe, "Clark walked into his mother's motor home and was shocked." Whatever the case, labeling an emotion can be a great hook.

6. To Cut Back Overpowering Emotions

In some cases, you might elicit emotions so powerfully, that it's simply too much. It's possible to write too strong of a scene. In situations like that, simply telling an emotion can weaken it enough to make it digestible for the audience.

So there you have it, six instances where you don't necessarily want the audience to feel empathetic emotions.


  1. I ran into number 4 a year or two ago. I was trying to not have any telling in my story, hoping to let the scene speak for itself when something unusual happened. But by not having the character think about how surprised they were, my critique partners didn't understand what was going on, wondering why the MC wasn't reacting to anything.

    Thanks for the list.

    1. Ken, I've done the same thing! That's when I realize, we do sometimes really need telling!


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