GOING DEEP WITH SHOW, DON'T TELL
One of the things we often discuss with writers is show, don’t tell. I don’t want to be told that your protagonist is worried—I want to be shown it.
This advice is all well and good. But sometimes this saying can lead to an excess of physical description. From that idea of show, don’t tell, we can then end up with a novel where our protagonist tenses their shoulders every time they’re worried or concerned—and it begins to feel repetitive. Not only that, but it doesn’t end up bringing us closer to the protagonist. We don’t feel more immersed in the story.
Perhaps the saying could be altered. I don’t want to be shown the emotion instead of told about it—I want to feel it.
This can be achieved through a variety of different methods, which I'll write about below- or you can watch the video, where I talk about this idea.
1. Use your setting to enhance emotion
We can help our readers feel the emotions our protagonist experiences by leaning on our setting. While in fantasy and speculative fiction novels, setting is often given great focus, in contemporary this can sometimes fall by the wayside. That means that by using setting to convey emotion, you’re enhancing a contemporary story on two levels (win/win! Hurrah!).
So, how do we do this? First, consider the external. On an overcast day, if you’re in a good mood, you may not notice the clouds, right? But if you’re worried or concerned (like our tense protagonist mentioned above), perhaps these clouds would feel like more than just clouds. They’d be a personal attack. Instead of thinking: Hmm. Looks like rain, we might instead think something like Oh, fabulous. It’s going to rain. Just what I need, on top of everything else. (*insert sarcasm here*)
How can the weather or another element of your story’s setting reflect your character’s tension—and make them feel even more tightly wound?
Image description: Clouds hover in a blue sky over green grass Photo: Glenn Carstsens-Peters on Unsplash
Another way we can lean on setting with our protagonist is to set them in motion. As readers, we love seeing characters doing things. As an author, you create pictures in readers’ minds—that’s why long stretches of dialogue without any action can feel a little less vivid or can lead to ‘floating dialogue syndrome’ (more on that another time), which can make readers find it easy to put your book down.
By setting your tense character in motion, you give the reader clear imagery in their mind and you enhance emotion. For example, let’s say this tense character of yours has just noticed those grey clouds out the window—and now they’re heading outside. Instead of focusing on those tight shoulders, perhaps they could shut the front door a little more forcefully than they’d intended. Perhaps when they reach out to open the car, they have to unclench their fingers from the first they’d formed. Maybe their hand slips once, twice as they go to plug in their seat belt.
Emotion can look different in every person in every scene and if we move away from common phrases, like tense shoulders, the writing feels fresh and becomes more immersive.
2. Lean into internalisation
Leaning into internalisation is another great way to make a reader feel emotion. In fact, internalisation is one of the strongest ways to show a reader how your protagonist feels—because it’s a direct line of communication between your character and the reader.
If you were to tell the reader how your protagonist felt using internalisation in a first-person story, it might look something like this:
I am tense.
Pretty boring, hey?
Of course, that can be amplified a little.
I am so flipping tense.
That wasn’t much better, was it?
Even in a third person story, internalisation or introspection can feel a little flat when it’s done in this telling fashion.
He was tense, so flipping tense, and he felt it everywhere.
When I say we can lean into internalisation, I mean looking beyond emotion and going deeper.
Consider the what if factor. When someone is tense, it’s often because they’re in a state of fight-or-flight—they don’t know which way they’re going to go. There’s risk involved in the scene.
Hypothesise with your character to help convey the sense of tension and the heightened state of emotion. What does this tension remind the character of? What prompted the tension? What fears result for the character as a result of this emotion?
Taking our protagonist from the car scene before, perhaps this could look something like this:
He shut the door with a little more force than he’d intended. Damn it. As he strode down the path, he tried to keep his gaze on the silver hatchback in front of him, but—
No. He couldn’t help it. His eyes went to the sky.
Dark clouds blossomed on the horizon like harbingers of doom.
Of course it would rain, today of all days, at a time when he so desperately needed sun.
He sat in the car, his hand slipping as he tried to clip in his seat belt once, twice, three times. C’mon, Riley. Get a grip.
He wrapped his bony fingers around the steering wheel, locking them in place as if perhaps the leather could ground him—stop him from feeling as if he was floating away. What if he couldn’t keep it together? What if he lost it just like he did when his mother passed away when he was a little boy?
Somewhere, some distance away, thunder boomed. He felt it in his heart.
How could he be strong when he had to bury the woman he’d once called his wife?
3. Consider underlying emotion
Often, on the outside, our shoulders might tense. The same may be true for our protagonists. But instead of thinking about what your character is presenting to the world, consider what they are truly feeling.
What do I mean here? As humans, we lie. We’re actually rather good at not giving away all our emotions to everyone we meet, even though some of us wear our hearts rather close to the sleeve (it’s me. I’m the hearty-sleevey one).
With that in mind, if someone tensed their shoulders externally, perhaps there’s another, deeper emotional reaction occurring within their body that others can’t see. Why is this character feeling tense? Is it anxiety about an upcoming event? Anger about a past occurrence? Or something else entirely?
Mixing your primary external show of tensed shoulders with a secondary internal show (e.g. a swirling in the gut, a racing heart, a throbbing head) can help create a stronger sense of feeling for the reader. It gives them a better understanding of why the character feels like they do instead of a more shallow, one-dimensional tension display. This in turn creates a deeper point of view.
4. Know when to tell
Hang on a minute! Didn’t I just say you were supposed to make me feel tension, not tell me about it?
Yes, you’re right—I absolutely did. But sometimes we want to tell an emotion in a scene.
This can be for several reasons. Telling a reader about an emotion can create a slight disconnect between them and the protagonist. This works especially if the protagonist is feeling a disconnect from themselves, e.g. they’re coming into or out of a coma, or perhaps they’re under the influence of a substance.
Image description: A woman stands behind a sheer curtain with her hands on her head. Photo: Monika Kozub on Unsplash
Telling emotion is also sometimes stronger in a scene of high-stakes action or conflict, e.g. He aimed the gun at the villain’s face, tension keeping the muscles in his shoulders rigid. By nature, internalisation is slower paced than action and dialogue—so keeping this short, sharp and to the point can make telling a real winner here.
If you are looking to use the body to show emotion in a tension scene, I recommend leaning on an aid like The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman to help convey this by moving outside of the shoulder region.
I hope this helps you find more ways to help your reader feel your protagonist’s tension when writing.
If you have any more tips on showing tension, I’d love to hear from you Feel free to post in the comments below.