Show Don’t Tell -- Body Language

She smiled.  This was the happiest she had been in a long time.
As authors we hear the phrase “show don't tell often.  When we’re starting out it’s a trickier feat to accomplish than after we’ve been writing for a while, but there is still no room for an author to get lazy.

To simply state how a character feels, or appears when it comes to emotion is taking an easy way out--and a boring road for our readers.  Since we’d never want to head down that path, it’s imperative that we continuously call ourselves out on this.

For example, a POV character makes the observation that another is feeling upset.  Does the narrative simply read, “He knew that she was upset with him”, or does it show us what makes him come to that conclusion? 

Think of it this way, what characteristics or mannerisms indicate a person is upset/angry?  Even pull this from your own life and the people around you.  Take your spouse.  How do you know when they’re upset?  Do they make a certain face that only comes out on that occasion?  Do they roll their eyes, take a deep breath, cross their arms, tighten their jaw, cry,raise their brows, narrow their eyes...the list goes on? 

She looked heavenward, her smile shining as the sun
that cast its light on her face.  She was no longer afraid 
of what the future held.  Her eyes were opened 
wide in acceptance of her fate.  
The darkness had become a thing of her past.
With that thought process in mind, let’s revisit our example.  Wouldn’t it be better if the narrative read something like this, “She rolled her eyes, cocked her head to the right, and crossed her arms.  He knew he’d have a challenge convincing her to come around to his side of things.”

One other word of caution is it’s easy to get locked into a way of phrasing body language.  You may attribute the same one to a few people.  Fix this on revisions!  Well some expressions are universal, not everyone demonstrates a certain emotion the exact same way.  Look around you and you’ll know this. (Also think of how boring it would be if everyone narrowed their eyes!)

One thing that may help when you’re looking for new ways to show emotions is to consult a resource on body language.  Many books have been dedicated to the subject and you may find it helpful to invest in one or more of these. 

Don’t discount the Internet.  It is full of useful articles on the subject.  You could search, ‘what body language shows a person is annoyed’.  Have fun working through the responses.  Utilize what’s fresh and works for your book. 

So what did you think of the pictures in this article and the examples that accompanied them?  Isn't it true that by tapping into the emotion of a scene, not only do you show not tell, but you add color to your work.


  1. The Emotion Thesaurus is an excellent book for showing - not just characters' emotions either. Def check out their website!

    Terri @ Scribbler's Sojourn

    1. Great! Thank you for your comment and insight, Terri. : )

  2. Great post, Carolyn! So helpful :) I get in a rut with descriptions sometimes and find myself using the same ones over and over. But, like you said, that's what revisions are for!

    1. Thank you, Katie. Completely understand that and find I have to edit them out at times too.


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