Writing Pitfall #3: Telling Emotions

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Telling Emotions is the third writing pitfall I would like to discuss.

What I mean is when authors tell you what the character is feeling rather than showing it through their actions or dialogue.

I hate it when authors are repetitive or drag out certain points. At times, it feels like some authors think their readers aren’t smart enough to figure out what is going on, so they spell it out.

I’m guilty of this in some ways, not because I think readers are dumb, but because I don’t trust my skills enough to feel confident that I’m making it clear enough. So, I have to watch myself to make sure I am not over-describing.

I’m sure you’ve heard “show, don’t tell” before. Telling emotions is one way you can surely break that rule. There are better ways to inform readers of how characters feel.

If a speaker’s emotions can be inferred, you don’t have to state it directly.

Wrong way: Telling Emotions

“You’re a real son-of-a-bitch, you know that? I never want to see you again,” Jane said, seething with anger.

Better way: Not Telling Emotions

“You’re a real son-of-a-bitch, you know that? I never want to see you again.”

We can guess the person speaking is upset. It isn’t necessary to state that the speaker is angry. And, if the words aren’t enough to determine if the speaker is mad or sad, the reader can use context clues to determine her emotional state.

Context Clues: Showing or Hinting at Emotions

An action can show the emotion. Such as: Jane held her balled fists close to her sides.

The reader can also tell if she’s angry or sad by the other person’s reaction, through actions, dialogue, or both.

Example: Don stepped out of her swinging range. “Go then, if you’re so pissed at me. Tomorrow, once you’ve cooled off, you’ll realize it’s not that big of a deal. Not worth throwing away three years.” He sat at his desk. “You know where to find me.”

Of course, it would help to know why Jane is upset about, which the reader might have already learned by this point. So, the author probably doesn’t need to spend a lot of time on establishing her emotional state, because the reader might already have a good sense of it.


An exception would be if it was being said in a teasing way. Then, you should probably clarify it’s not meant to be taken seriously.

“You’re a real son-of-a-bitch, you know that?” Jane tried to appear stern. “I never want to see you again.” The last few words sounded more like “sss ew gen” because she clenched her jaw to prevent grinning.

More Examples

“I can’t believe you would cheat on me.” Is the speaker sad or angry? We can’t tell by the sentence alone. If there was nothing before this to give the reader a hint, it is okay to add something that indicates the emotional state of the speaker. Just don’t come out and say it directly.

“I can’t believe you would cheat on me,” she said and wiped her wet cheeks with the back of her hand.

You could also change the dialogue to convey the emotion, if you don’t want to add an action.

For example: “You bastard! How could you cheat on me?” ~or~ “How could you cheat on me? Did you not think about how much this would hurt me?”

Now, we don’t need to do anything else. In the first example, we can guess that the person is mad. In the second example, we can guess that the person is sad.

My Conclusion About Telling Emotions

My examples probably aren’t the best, but I think they convey the basic idea: telling readers how a person feels isn’t necessary in most cases. Telling emotions is a writing pitfall I see often when I’m reading. Most of the time, I ignore it. But, think about how much faster the pace of the story would be without those unneeded words dragging it down. Plus, if you’re looking to reduce your word count, looking for instances of telling emotions can be a good way to pare down your work-in-progress.

Emotions can be complex, mixed, and confused. If a character is having a serious crisis, a few words about his or her state of mind might be necessary. I’m not saying you can never talk about the emotions of your character. Just make sure you aren’t repeating what is already obvious from the dialogue and actions of the character.


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About Jen Schaper

In addition to being a book blogger, I am a mother of three children, a retail backroom coordinator, and a wannabe writer (when I make time to do it).
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  1. Yes, “show don’t tell” otherwise it is hard for me to become emotionally connected to the characters or immersed in the story.
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