When Should You Tell to Convey Emotion?

Today’s topic combines the two hardest questions I’ve encountered as a writer:

  • How do you convey emotion?
  • How much do you Tell vs. Show?

It’s easy to say, “Show, Don’t Tell.”  However, I’m trying to take a more nuanced approach to my study of the craft of writing.  Frankly, I can find a million posts that tell me to Show; it’s much more difficult to find discussion of when Showing may not be your best strategy.

Let’s examine the situation logically.  Telling has two big advantages:

  1. It’s concise.
  2. It’s clear.

It also has major downsides:

  1. It does not engage the reader.
  2. It doesn’t fully convince the reader.

Thus, the obvious conclusions are that the author should use Telling when:

  • The longer story space required to Show an emotion isn’t warranted.
  • Clarity is more important that immersion.
  • The passage isn’t needed to persuade the reader, such as when the author is reinforcing a character trait rather than establishing it.

Let’s examine an example I crafted just for this post:

Kirl hesitated at the door.  He was sad about Zamin’s loss, but what could he do about it?  Whistling, he turned the knob.

Presumably, the reader would know what loss Zamin suffered and be able to draw a conclusion about Kirl from the fact that his friend’s tragedy produced so little reflection.  The passage above efficiently conveys this trait of Kirl’s to the reader by using the telling phrase, “he was sad.”  It wasn’t necessary, in this instance, for the author to get the reader to experience Kirl’s sadness, and thus Telling, in my opinion, worked.

I’d love some further thoughts on this topic from my readers.  Are there other instances where you believe that Telling works to convey emotion?


4 thoughts on “When Should You Tell to Convey Emotion?

  1. Decent point, Brian. Even as a new writer, “Show, Don’t Tell” gets ingrained into your head and I often find myself rifling through my work trying to turn all of my “Tell’s” into “Show’s”, when there are perfectly legitimate times for their to be “Tell’s”, as you described above. I think one of the real “art’s of writing” is knowing when is the best time to Tell and when is the best time to Show.

    • Daniel,

      Undeniably a difficult question. If my blog accomplishes only one thing, I hope it is to get authors to consider questions like this one.

      Thanks for the comment.


  2. Really I think that passage is telling one thing and showing another: telling us that Kirl is sad, but showing us that his relationship with Zamin perhaps isn’t very committed or close, or perhaps that he’s not the most tactful of people, is perhaps a little cavalier about others’ feelings in the way that while he does hesitate at the door, he’s also whistling as he opens it. Basically, you’re showing that the thing you’ve just told the reader isn’t strictly true, or at least doesn’t have any depth to it, and I think it is effective.

    Generally, I’d say, that’s the sort of situation where telling is most effective, when juxtaposed with showing. Especially, I think, if there’s an unreliable narrator, where s/he can tell the reader one thing then show them something that contradicts that.

    As far as emotion is concerned, telling would work well when the telling is (again) in contrast to what has been shown, say a big reveal. After avoiding his ex-girlfriend and shouting at her when he can’t avoid her, becoming unpleasant when his friends try to bring the topic up and throwing away her stuff when he finds it in her apartment, a character admitting through telling that he does love her and miss her could have a greater impact. Dodge around the issue, and when there’s no more dodging, using telling can hit the bullseye.

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