Don’t get me wrong. Words like angry and happy and nice are perfectly good words that are long-standing members of the English lexicon. It’s nothing personal. I don’t dislike them. Really. It’s just that those words are about as energized as a solar-powered calculator in a cave at midnight—they won’t be lighting up a reader’s imagination any time soon. So authors work hard to follow the oft-repeated mantra: “Show, don’t tell.” But what does that mean exactly? And how is it achieved? I make no claim of mastery, but I do have a trick I’d like to share. And it’s a trick that may zap a bit of new life into your writing.
One way that authors “show” the underlying emotion in a scene is through characters’ dialogue—the words they say and how they say them. That’s not what I want to explore. I want to focus on three ready-to-use body parts virtually all characters bring to a story: their faces, their feet, and their hands. Because by focusing on just those three little things, you can give your readers’ imaginations a hand, too.
Instead of starting with an explanation, I’ll start with an example from Lisa Graff’s middle-grade novel Double Dog Dare. In the midst of a “dare war,” one of the main characters, Francine, had to dye her hair green. When Francine’s mother attempted to speak with Francine about her hair, this is what happened:
Her mother stared into her mug for a long minute, silent. Then she got up, walked to the sink, and poured all her tea slowly down the drain. When she turned around, she leaned against the sink, arms jutting out from her sides, and studied Francine. (p. 116)
What’s going on here? Does Lisa Graff have to tell us that Francine’s mother is trying to figure out what to say? Nope. She’s used the mother’s face, feet, and hands to show us the mother’s hesitation, and she trusts us as readers to accurately infer what’s going on. Let’s examine the excerpt a little more deeply to see how it works:
- The Face: Her mother stared into her mug for a long minute, silent.
- The Feet: Then she got up, walked to the sink…
- The Hands: …and poured all her tea slowly down the drain. When she turned around, she leaned against the sink, arms jutting out from her sides…
- The Face (again): … and studied Francine.
The mother’s face sets the scene right away. As she stares at her tea, the slow, deliberate pace of the mother’s actions is established. When her feet carry her to the sink, we already know she’s not in a rush. Then the mother’s hands join the show, slowly pouring the tea down the drain, cementing our certainty about the mother’s cautious approach to discussing her daughter’s hair. And finally, we end back at the mother’s face as she studies Francine.
Sure, Lisa Graff could have written something shorter: “Francine’s mom didn’t seem to know what to say.” But she didn’t. Thanks to her character’s face, feet, and hands, Lisa Graff showed us instead, greatly increasing the vividness of the scene in the process. So the next time one of your characters needs to be angry or happy or nice, don’t tell your readers—show them. Then trust the power of inference to take care of the rest.
Wanna post a comment? How about starting with a one- or two-sentence glimpse at a character’s face and feet and hands? Try to “show” some emotion…and see if others can figure out what you’ve decided not to “tell.”
Thanks for even more information about using this technique to teach show and not tell. I am a former educator and I may do some substitute teaching this coming year; so the more tricks in my bag the better. Thanks again.
Great advice. These simple actions convey emotion and make the characters more real to readers.
Thanks for the body part explanation of how to show what’s going on in a scene. Concrete examples are excellent teaching tools.
It sounds like you may be a teacher, so I wanted to let you know that I’ve used the hands-feet-face idea as a basis for teaching “show, don’t tell” to students ranging from grades 4-8. You can even do a charades-type game to introduce the concept, selecting a student to act out an emotion without words, and then having the rest of the class guess what the emotion is, focusing on the student’s hands, feet, and face. (One of these days, I plan to share the specific lesson plan via our “For Teachers” page. . . .)
T. P. Jagger
One would think we were staring at a stack of gold bars. Our eyes are unable to move off the sight.
Sure makes me wonder what you were staring at. Thanks for sharing the “facial show.”
T. P. Jagger
@T. P. Jagger,It is a stack of home DNA kits and an 11 year old boy’s dream of identifying his father might become reality. Here is a bit more:
I pick a box off the top row. “It says here to allow 7-10 days for any results.”
Jonson’s eyes sparkle. “Just what the doctor ordered. We can swab both of you tonight, yours first, and then Matt’s. If he drools it’ll be easy.”
Love the post! Great food for thought (or face, hands, and feet for thought) !
Great post! And great snippet, Dianna. 🙂
Yes, brilliant. That show don’t tell is a lot harder than it sounds!
My personal favorite: He threw his hands up in the air.
Mama stood with her back to me, her forehead tipped against the window, her arms pulled tightly across her front.
“Mama?” I said. “You all right?”
She didn’t turn around, but she raised her head. Then she fumbled with a tissue and blew her nose two times, hard, before turning to face me.
(I love trying to show character emotion without actually naming the emotion. This short excerpt is from “A Smidgen of Sky,” to be released on November 6.)
Let me guess, Dianna . . . Mama’s happy ’cause she won the lottery? (Just kidding! Great example. Thanks for sharing!:)