Tweet chat 20th November 2020 Show and Tell with guest Angela Ackerman

Participants: Maria Johnson, Gerald Hornsby, Anita Belli, Elizabeth Holland, Rekha Elaswarapu, Sandy Stuckless, Julia Mayerson Brown, Carolyn McBride, Rik Lonsdale, Julie Chang, Deborah Klée

We started by talking about the things we find most challenging in showing rather than telling emotions. Angela started out by saying: My challenge is making sure I’m describing each character’s emotions in a unique way so they don’t all express feelings the same way. I’m pretty good with emotion now so show-not-tell isn’t too difficult for me, but in the thick of writing I can struggle to keep each character’s emotional wounds, sensitivities, and expressive “comfort zone” (emotional range) front of mind, all of which influence what they feel.’

This prompted some discussion. Julia said: I spend too much time searching (using google, Emo-thesaurus, etc) for ways to “show” with body language and internal feelings – my first drafts take forever.

Angela responded: I agree. Sometimes the best thing to do when drafting is to “name” the emotion or write something quick and mark that place to come back later to re-write fresh. That way you don’t lose momentum.

It’s totally okay if you find writing fresh emotion hard to do. It is hard. We have to push ourselves to not use the “same-old-same-old” and find something to fit our character that matches who they are, their sensitivities, emotional range and comfort zone.

I asked Angela if she used a tool to help her to keep her characters’ emotional characteristics front of mind. To which she replied: Yes, I do. I actually use a tool at One Stop for Writers to do this. You can brainstorm your character’s arc, emotional range, wounds, personality, backstory, etc.

Full disclosure – I help build the Character Builder tool. It uses all the thesauruses on Character that @beccapuglisi and I have created. Here’s a sample profile you can build with it – it lets you go deep:

What I love about the Character Builder is how it saves time, because it prompts you with details on behaviour, emotional expression, wounds, personality, etc as you brainstorm. It makes it easy to build a “deep” character so you know how they will act in the story.

How do we avoid adverbs by showing and do they sometimes have a place? 

Angela: Adverbs do have a place…occasionally. If you need to quantify something like I just did (occasionally vs. never). But with emotion, it’s rare. 9/10, the writer needs stronger/more specific verbs, NOT adverbs. Eg: “Crying raggedly” might be “wept” or “sobbed”

Too many adverbs are fine when drafting it’s all about creativity. Go for it. But in revision, run a search for “ly” and challenge yourself to go deeper/write specific. Readers should see and feel. Adverbs can short change them of experiencing powerful moments.

Rik: Yes, adverbs have a place in the first draft. Afterwards they have to do at least double the work to earn a reprieve from the scalpel.

Sandy: I’m not as against adverbs as some writers. It’s when the manuscript is ‘over-seasoned’ with them that it becomes a problem. For me, it’s just about drilling down into body language and how they act around other characters that really drives the emotions home.

How do you avoid using the same way of describing e.g. fear in one or different novels without sounding self-conscious?

Angela: See each character as an individual. They will each have a different emotional range (their emotional baseline). Think about spiders for a second. Some people see one and leap back bumping into things to get away. Others might ignore it.

Different things cause a fear-based reaction. Figuring out your character’s “sensitivities” and expressive range will help you know what a typical reaction is (seeing a spider) and something more fear-driven (hearing a noise in the house at night).

Once you get a handle on their emotional baseline (typical responses) it’s easier to plan different “shades” of responses depending on how strongly they experience an emotion. Then using a tool like the Emotion Thesaurus helps with brainstorming what it looks like,

Remember there are many ways to describe emotion: facial expressions, body language, thoughts, visceral sensations, dialogue cues, etc. Emotion can come through a character’s actions, choices, decisions, behaviour, and what they say. So many ways to show, not tell.

If you need help understand what “emotional Range is, try this article:…

Participants recommended that those who had not found Angela’s book The Emotional Thesaurus should have a look as it is an invaluable reference book for writers. ‘It really is a game-changer for varying the descriptions in your narrative. It even goes beyond what’s actually in the book. Sometimes you can extrapolate past the actual description.’

Maria: I think it’s about balance & what is authentic about that character. E.g. with my fantasy novel, my main character, Lottie, often bit her lip to show her anxiety – so I kept this as almost its own character trait, which is different to my historical fiction novel characters.

Angela: Yes, this can work. Your character may have a “go-to” mannerism or action that reveals their emotional state. This can be especially helpful when they are HIDING EMOTIONS because we still have to SHOW readers what the character feels. We just don’t want to overuse

Angela: I don’t have a full entry of FEAR but I do examples for others to help show how to show character emotion. When you have time later, check these out: VINDICATED:… SCHADENFREUDE:… EUPHORIA:…

These will help you see the different ways emotions can be expressed. Really there are so many unique ways to tie emotion to a character & their personality/backstory!

There was an interesting exchange that continued after the tweet-chat which I have captured here as it goes a little deeper in explanation. 

Maria asked: What would it look like to overuse a description etc? How will you know you’ve overused it?

Angela: The areas most prone to overuse are facial expressions (smiles, frowns, glares, etc) and visceral sensations (heart beating, chest tightening, stomach dropping etc).

The reason is, there are only so many facial expressions and visceral sensations to draw from. But this doesn’t mean you can’t use them…you just have to choose a fresh way of describing them. If I say “Tim’s chest tightened” that’s accurate but boring. Or “Tim’s chest squeezed like it was in a vice” is a cliché/overuse But if I wrote something like “Tim’s chest tightened, trapping his breath” that’s a bit better or Time’s breath became a tight knot, trapped in his chest, etc.

Maria: I guess I’m wondering, when do they become overused if they are effective examples of showing? Is it just about keeping it mixed? If I read ‘Tim’s chest tightened’ once or twice I wouldn’t find it boring but maybe lots of times in the same chapter I would.

Angela: We definitely don’t want to use the same things over and over. With Visceral description, we want to use them when it really counts, like an exclamation point. So, describe emotions through body language, dialogue cues, etc and Vis when we need a big jolt emotion.

Description becomes overused because it’s accurate-readers can see it and picture it. Once everyone describes something the same way readers get bored/don’t feel involved. So, we want to keep description fresh. Use an action (tight chest) but describe it in a new way.

You might find this helpful as it digs into the different ways to show emotion because we do want to vary our vehicles for showing: Five Vehicles for Showing Emotion…

How do you show the emotional journey of a character over a period of time?

Maria: You might show how a character reacts differently to something as the novel goes on. Eg they were afraid of something at the start of the novel they aren’t anymore. The showing can reflect the character’s growth.

Angela: They also make room for positive things: closeness, trust, teamwork, vulnerability, openness, honestly asking for help, standing up for themselves, etc. It will be different for each character. Their behavior changes because emotionally they are in a new place. It goes the other way, too. If devolving, their behaviour darkens–become mistrustful, closed off, emotionally sensitive, pull back from life, give up on goals, etc. Showing behaviour is so important as this is how readers navigate the story and how to feel about it

Anita: I think it is by how they overcome obstacles and fight the monsters – internal and external. A story is, basically, a character with a problem to overcome. This character arc is harder to manage over a series of books as I am finding out with #RubySixpence2

Gerald: This is a tricky one. I’m now writing series characters. There’s not much of a character or emotional arc, as they need to be much the same in each ‘episode’. Like Lee Child says (about Reacher): “we don’t need no stinking character arc” (I may be paraphrasing). Someone once talked about arcs in relation to James Bond. He learns nothing, movie to movie. He gets in difficulty, fights the baddies, lands the girl, roll credits.

Angela: There are three types of arcs: Changed, Static, and Failed. You’re talking about a static arc where there isn’t a lot of internal change. Characters need to become aware of shortcomings to succeed but don’t necessarily deal with internal stuff the same as a change arc.

Deborah: I write the character development using a Change Paradigm in five acts. (This is a tool I developed using the change paradigm model.)

Angela: Good idea. A lot of arc and internal growth is about what is missing from their life – that missing need is their internal motivation for the goal. How bad do they want it? What are they willing to sacrifice? How are they willing to change and leave old ways behind?

Sandy: This is helpful in my current WIP where my MMC is going through some jealousy related to his wife and their mentor. He’s having to grow past that in order to complete their assignment. In the same vein, she has to get past her lack of trust to rely on others to help her.

Maria: you might show how a character reacts differently to something as the novel goes on. Eg they were afraid of something at the start of the novel they aren’t anymore. The showing can reflect the character’s growth.

Elizabeth: In my Christmas book my main character uses fashion as a way to show her emotional journey. As she grows in confidence and heals from her heartbreak she plays with her style and becomes more adventurous

Angela: This is one of the ways description is MAGIC. We can use other elements to symbolize a deeper meaning. Clothing in this case. Or a setting representing something important to a character. Or an action – doing something they have always refused to do. All show a shift

Elizabeth: I love playing with description. When I studied literacy at school I enjoyed how little things had meaning and symbolism. It’s something that I’ve tried to replicate in my own writing.

Angela: Symbolism is SO POWERFUL. We can use a setting and elements in the character’s world show the turmoil going on inside a character, or it can represent their goals, desires, fears, the path not taken.

How do you avoid telling backstory? 

Maria: Back story can be done very peacefully when it does actually jump you back to when it happened – this is easier in 1st POV because you can see them actually live it. If the characters are remembering it, maybe connect it to present emotions as they think about it?

Sandy: Backstory is like distant relatives at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Good in small doses. Hit me with it a little bit at a time to help me understand why plot and character are unfolding as they are

Angela: 100% agree. Readers love to follow clues and character behaviour acts as hooks. They ask themselves questions, knowing the behaviour is tied to backstory and read on to find out what’s going on under the hood, and what the backstory is.

Julia: Use of form: flashbacks, diaries, letters. It depends how much backstory you want and where on the timeline you choose as the starting point for the story?

Angela: You can use these with caution. Anything that takes the reader away from the present stops the pace. Backstory is best revealed through action, behaviour, choices, not info. If you have to dip into the past, think “get in & get out” to show ONLY what is necessary.

Any other questions for Angela?

Elizabeth: I have family members with autism and so I try to be a little more explicit when describing emotions in my writing. What’s the best way to strike a balance between making emotions obvious, whilst also relying on showing not telling?

Angela: Great question. First is to know your audience and what they need. I would rely on critique partners to be your gut check if you are going too far and “overshowing” just by habit because this is what you need to do with family.

I would also suggest really targeting your verbs and making them strong and specific. And think hard about emotional body language/beats. 1 strong action is better than 3 meh actions Challenge yourself to go for deep level show/emotions & use different forms

Forms; dialogue, dialogue cues, body language, expressions, viscerals, thoughts, actions, etc. Lots of ways to show. Find what works best for each scene.

Further resources shared by Angela Ackerman

Here’s a Show-Don’t-Tell Pro Pack that has a ton of info on show-and-tell from our best articles & it contains sample entries from all our books. This helps writers better “see” how each important area of description can look like on the page:

The Character Builder tool which helps writers plan deep characters and leads a person through planning backstory (including wounding events and fears), personality, behaviour, emotions, relationships, daily life, skills and more. This tool is also intelligent, meaning it knows which details will be important to character arc, and it will gather these together into an accurate Character Arc Blueprint for that character:

And for people who are interested in The Emotion Thesaurus itself, they can find it in book form: or as part of the One Stop for Writers Descriptive Database

Many thanks to our guest Angela Ackerman for an incredibly useful chat and generopus sharing of information. And to all who took part. 

Angela Ackerman, bestselling author, international speaker, and co-founder of

Writers Helping Writers®

One Stop For Writers ®  

Bestselling Writing Resources: 

The Emotion Thesaurus & its companion, Emotion Amplifiers 

The Positive Trait & The Negative Trait Thesaurus volumes 

The Urban Setting & The Rural Setting Thesaurus volumes

The Emotional Wound Thesaurus 

Latest Release: The Occupation Thesaurus

Join us next week 27th November when we will be chatting about Dialogue.