September 25, 2014

Showing Emotions: Finding the Right Balance

Stacked stones in a tower with text: Balancing Emotions in Our Story

I’ve mentioned before that one of my “most improved” writing skills is writing with emotion. At least I hope so, but there’s always room for further improvement. *smile*

The ability to manipulate our readers’ emotions is a good thing (as screwed up as that sounds). We can probably all think of books with so-so writing quality that manage to be popular with readers anyway because readers are sucked into the story. How do they manage that trick?

Storytelling and keeping readers’ interest often comes down to creating emotions in our readers. So let’s take a closer look at how we create emotions in our readers and what we need to keep in mind to find the right balance.

The Elements of Writing that Create Emotion

As I mentioned in my post about strengthening emotions, every aspect of our writing can convey emotion:

  • Dialogue: “I want you to leave. Now.”
  • Dialogue Cues: Her voice broke.
  • Thoughts: She couldn’t take anymore.
  • Action: She slammed the door.
  • Body Language: She crossed her arms.
  • Visceral (Internal) Reaction: Her chest tightened.

One element I didn’t include in that list is narrative. When they involve emotion, narrative (descriptive) sentences (excluding any sentences that would fall into the above categories) are “telling” and not “showing.”

In most cases, narrative emotional cues would be the bad kind of telling too, like “She was angry.” Usually, our writing will be more compelling and use a deeper point of view if we don’t name emotions, but instead use dialogue, thoughts, action, or visceral reactions to get the information across to the reader.

The Three Ways We Need to Balance Emotions

Those elements seem straightforward enough. So why do we struggle with writing emotions?

One major reason we struggle with writing emotions is because there are multiple ways we can screw it up. We need to balance emotion in our story in three ways:

Amount of Emotion Shown:

We need to match the stimulus (the trigger, or cause, for the emotion) with the response.

Variety of Emotion Shown:

We need to show an emotional journey for our characters by changing their responses to the plot events over the course of the story.

  • Too simplistic of emotional responses and our characters don’t feel layered. We need our characters’ emotions to change as they adjust to the plot events. A character who’s always angry isn’t interesting.
  • Too complex and readers might not be able to follow our characters’ emotional journey. If our characters’ emotions change too frequently, we risk them coming across like fickle teenagers. (Even if we are writing teenagers, we still have to give the reader something to relate to other than sheer chaos. *smile*)

Elements of Emotion Shown:

We need to mix and match the elements we use to portray characters’ emotions. During big emotional reactions, we can’t get across a full emotional experience by relying only on dialogue, or only on thoughts, etc.

  • Too external of a response (dialogue/dialogue cues, body language, and action) and readers won’t have enough information to know what the character is really thinking or feeling. Sure, we might say the character crossed their arms, but was that due to anger, fear, shyness, or simply being cold? If you’re familiar with Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus, you’ve probably noticed that the same body language cues can indicate multiple emotions. Readers need more information.
  • Too internal of a response (thoughts and visceral reactions) and we can easily overuse some of our best tools.
    • Thoughts: As I mentioned in the Option A example of my post about using layers to show emotions, we need to share characters’ thoughts to reveal the why—she’s angry or scared or worried because… (She’s afraid xyz will happen, etc.) However, sharing too many thoughts can result in “telling” the reader everything in an “on the nose” style rather than allowing emotions to grow in the subtext. We want to share thoughts, but only in the character’s voice and only as much as needed.
    • Visceral Reactions: Similarly, involuntary physiological responses are great for showing the gut reactions of our characters, but if we use too many, our characters can seem constantly on the verge of a heart attack. (A pain grew in her chest and she couldn’t breathe, etc.) We want to save visceral reactions for triggers that would cause a gut check, and not use them for just any random, mildly bad news for our characters.

Finding the Right Balance

With all those potential pitfalls, it’s no wonder that we sometimes miss the mark. As Angela Ackerman pointed out, just because we know how to “show rather than tell” doesn’t mean we’re home free.

Sometimes we’ll feel the need to explain and show and tell. Or sometimes our character’s emotional response will over-show, with melodrama, purple prose, or near-heart-attacks.

The wrong balance can create a shallow point of view or distant emotions. The wrong balance can cause slow pacing. The wrong balance can create two-dimensional characters. In other words, the wrong balance won’t engage readers in our storytelling.

To find the right balance, we’ll probably have to rely on the two tried-and-true feedback methods. If we gain distance from our story, we can self-edit by reading our character’s emotional response in the full context of the story to see if it’s an off-note. Or we can use beta readers, critique partners, or editors to know when we’ve succeeded or failed at finding the right balance.

Either way, feedback from others or from our instincts can be our best weapon for getting the balance just right. The reward for succeeding might be readers who can’t put down our story. *smile*

Do you disagree that creating emotion in the reader is important for keeping their interest? Can you think of times when using narrative sentences for emotion might work? Can you think of other ways we need to balance emotions in our writing? Do you struggle with some kinds of balancing more than others? How do you find the right balance?

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Elle Love
Elle Love

Hi Jami,
As a newbie writer, I struggle with finding the right amount of emotion. My character’s response doesn’t always match the trigger. My critique partners are able to point out what needs fixed. I value their feedback and your blog. Thanks for the excellent post!

R. A. Meenan

Great post! I’ve always felt that this is the most important aspect of the Showing vs. Telling debate. The more we show emotions rather than tell them, the stronger our characters can get.

I like that you discussed balance. I’ve never really thought of the melodramatic side of showing emotion, but I can definitely see it happening.

It’s funny that your telling emotion example was “She was angry” because that’s what I use when teaching students about showing vs. telling.

Telling: “She was angry.”

Showing: “Her nostrils flared, her hands formed fists, and she gritted her teeth, glaring at him.”

You don’t NEED to say “she was angry” in the second example. Happy people generally don’t act like that. XD

Love your post. I’m adding it to my list of writing tips.

Angela Ackerman

You write the best posts on this Jami–thanks for all the links. I love it because it allows people to find help any step of the way. Emotion is a complicated element, and you explain it so very well!

Jacquie Biggar

Loved this post Jami, there’s nothing better than losing oneself in the emotions on the page. I know it’s a good book, when I look up and have to blink myself back into the room, 🙂
I can only hope to one day write that well.


Do you disagree that creating emotion in the reader is important for keeping their interest? Can you think of times when using narrative sentences for emotion might work?

Genre and target audience are factors. Hard sci-fi, for instance, tends to be more about the underlying ideas and what the characters do than how they’re feeeeeeeling. In that situation—and dependent on the overall style and point of the scene or story—summarizing “He was furious” might very well be better than even “He ground his teeth in fury.”

Can you think of other ways we need to balance emotions in our writing?

Character and PoV make a difference in where the balance needs to be. I’ve dabbled in converting A Fistful of Fire into 3rd person, past tense (it’s 1st person, present), and it’s interesting to see how much that changes. Some lines, I have to outright decide if I want to keep the original phrasing or the original tone/mood, because I can’t keep both.

Bestsellers succeed because they connect with their readership. Different readerships want different things, but you have to connect with that readership’s emotions to get them viscerally interested. That takes different things for different genres or types of writing.


Hmm… I think that between this artical and the comments, I know what kept me from finishing the last Issac Asimov book I read… It was too much about ideas (good, Interesting Ideas, here, don’t get me wrong) and not enough about character… not enough emotion to keep me invested in the story…
Thanks for another interesting blog post!


Do you struggle with some kinds of balancing more than others? How do you find the right balance?

Currently I’m struggling with a certain character in a story of mine. This character doesn’t have much emotion…or at least, they don’t show it. They are quite distant and make it difficult to balance out emotions with other aspects of them. Right now, I’m trying to show their inner battle with their own suppressed emotions (the ones they still feel, anyways) but I’m hoping to find a better way to show emotion (and balance them out). Until then, this blog post helps a lot (not just with them, but with other characters as well)! Thanks for the advice!

Autumn Macarthur

Great article thanks Jami!

This is something I’ve struggled with. Having an editor whose most frequent repeated comment in my manuscripts is “But what is he/she feeling? SHOW me!” has helped a lot. That and The Emotion Thesaurus, which I recommend to every writer I know! I write romance, and getting the reader emotionally involved in the character’s inner life is way more important there than in some other genres, like the science fiction mentioned.

One of the things I was most pleased to see in reader reviews of my first published book were comments that the story was deeply emotional and pulled the reader right into the character’s emotions.

I do sometimes wonder if I put in too much emotion though and slow the pacing down too far.

Varying up emotional responses is an issue for me too. It’s easy to rely on the same visceral responses over and over until they become clichéd and repetitive. My challenge now is finding new ways to describe the effect of emotions on the character without straying so far from the usual that readers miss what the emotion is! 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

About whether “telling” emotions in the narrative (naming emotions) is better or showing visceral/ bodily reactions is better in general, I think it depends on the reader’s personal experience and what they’re used to reading. I think the vast majority of books I’ve ever read in my life “told” emotions and named them (even Harry Potter, if I recall correctly), so I don’t feel emotionally detached at all when reading “telling”, lol. In fact, words like “euphoria” really DO make me feel euphoric. But I do understand what you mean, because, for instance, two of my writer friends feel an emotional reaction to actions and gestures (e.g. he smiled at the sunset) but NOT towards emotion words. However, I myself respond quite strongly to emotion words (so “grief”, “anguish”, “despair”, etc. DO have a strong emotional effect on me when I see a character feeling these emotions), but I do see that NOT ALL readers respond to these mood words as much as I do, haha. Some examples of named / told emotions that were very effective with me as a reader, are the Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and George Eliot (Mill on the Floss) novels. Seriously, almost all the emotions are told in emotion words, not shown in bodily gestures, lol. But these emotion words once again had a huge effect on me. So again, it all depends on what the individual reader is used to reading! So it could be that I’m used to seeing the majority of…  — Read More »

Julie Musil

Oh, I absolutely LOVE books that leave me an emotional wreck. The trick for me is to do the same in my own work. I struggle with it in early drafts, but get closer to the mark later on, once I’ve tuned up the story. Thanks, Jami!


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Alina K. Field

Love this post, Jami. I just started a bestseller spy book that my husband liked and recommended I read, and after a few pages, I thought–it’s so FLAT. Duh, I’m a romance writer and reader! This is a good reminder that there are readers out there who like other styles and genres!

And P.S. I sent up a prayer for your brother. Keep us posted on his progress.


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