Oh, What a Feeling: How to Show Character Emotions

by James Scott Bell

Don’t talk of stars burning above. If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire. If you’re on fire, show me!
– Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady

How to describe a character’s emotions is, of course, one of the most important tools in the fiction toolbox, right next to the plot caulk, the dialogue drill, and the scene saw.

And there are, as we all know, two choices: showing and telling. A good many critique group sheriffs will insist that you must never tell (name) an emotion. Never a simple Nancy was worried or Bob was frightened.

Well, I shot the sheriff (figuratively speaking!). It all depends on what I call The Intensity Scale. Think about the emotional intensity of a scene on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being nearly catatonic and 10 a loss of control like the “Leave Britney alone!” guy. And think of 5 as the demarcation line.

A scene can travel, and usually does, from below the line to above the line.

My rule guideline is that any emotion below 5 can, and usually should, be named. If Nancy is worried about how the meatloaf will turn out, you don’t have to go into sweaty palms and racing heart. That’s too much (unless the meatloaf is being prepared for Hannibal Lecter and the cops are nearby). Just write, Nancy was worried about the meatloaf.

But when you go over 5, you should show the emotion. The goal is to help the reader feel, not just know, what the emotion is.

So how do we show when we’re in the intense portion of a scene?

Nancy Kress, my former colleague at Writer’s Digest, had a great article on that in the January, 1993 issue. She gives five ways. Here they are, with my comments.

Physical Reaction

This is the one we usually go to first. Because it’s effective. Rendering how the character feels physically helps the reader vicariously feel it, too.

The trick is to find original ways to do it. Readers are used to sweaty palms, racing hearts, and twisting guts.

Does that mean never using them? Not at all. Just give them a little boost:

Her hands were slick and slippery now.

Her heart thrummed like a souped-up engine.

His stomach rocked in a greasy hammock. (This is like something I read once in a Stephen King story, but can’t remember which one. Anyway, you get the idea).

So: Don’t just grab the first description that comes to you. Play around a little. Add your touch of originality.


Actions speak louder than words, right? You can always show the character doing something as a result of the emotion.

Again, watch out for the instant answer. An angry boss pounding his fist on the table, for example. That’s expected. Add something to it.

How about pounding a coffee mug down, spilling the brew?

How about yanking out a drawer, scrambling the contents?

A good exercise is to visualize the moment and let your character improvise, try different things. Go a little wild. You’ll hit on something surprising that seems right. When that happens, you know it will surprise the reader, too.

And a surprised reader is a delighted reader.


What a character says in the context of a scene should reveal emotion. And the way you can tell if you’ve succeeded is that you don’t need an adverb to make it clear.


“Get out of here, John!” Nancy said angrily.

“That’s the last time I pet a lion,” said Tom offhandedly.

No finer example of how it’s done is this clip from Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants.” A man and woman are sitting at a train station, sipping drinks, as the man jauntily tries to tell the woman that an abortion is no problem. (The mastery of the story is that the word abortion is never used).

“Then what will we do afterward?” [Says the woman]

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the string of beads.

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”

“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”

“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

That last line hits hard. We know how she feels from the context and word choice. We don’t need said the girl sarcastically.


We waste a description of setting if we don’t use it for “double duty.” It should add to the tone of the story and reflect the character’s emotion.

In “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away,” a short story about a man’s darkest moment, Stephen King begins this way:

It was a Motel 6 on I-80 just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. The snow that began at midafternoon had faded the sign’s virulent yellow to a kinder pastel shade as the light ran out of the January dusk. The wind was closing in on that quality of empty amplification one encounters only in the country’s flat midsection.

Fading light, dusk, wind, emptiness. We are being set up to feel the inner life of the character even before we meet him.


This is, I think, the most powerful way to convey emotion, because it’s coming directly from inside the character. It’s also the best opportunity for originality, as there are an infinite variety of choices under two main headings: explicit and implicit. Here’s an example of explicit emotion.

I can’t open this door. I just can’t. John will kill me. But I have to. I have to.

Implicit emotion can be proffered by way of metaphor (A thousand devils poked his brain with pitchforks), dreams, and memories.

And example of using a dream is the beginning of Chapter 15 of The City by Dean Koontz:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain …

Here’s an example of memory from my novel, Your Son is Alive:

He was surrounded by cops, touched by strong hands, hearing voices, but they were growing distant, and he went into another world, long ago, seeing the Mickey Mouse balloon from Disneyland when he was four, and his dad tied the string around his wrist. But he wanted to hold it himself so he slipped the string off his wrist and held the balloon and waved it around. Then had to scratch his back and somehow the string got away, and the balloon went up, up, up and he said Oh no oh no oh no, and he could only watch, helpless, his grief expanding because Mickey was all alone in the sky, no one to help him. Unmoored.

So try this:

Go to any scene in your WIP and ask:

  • Where do the moments fall on the Intensity Scale?
  • Do I show or tell intense emotions?
  • How might I use or more of the 5 ways?
  • How can I “originalize” the showing?

Jim Butcher says the emotional component of his books is the secret of their popularity. In writing about scene and sequel, where sequel = emotion, he writes:

People don’t love Harry [Dresden] for kicking down the monster’s front door. They love him because he’s terrified out of his mind, he knows he’s putting himself in danger by doing it, he’s probably letting himself in for a world of hurt even if he is successful, but he chooses to do it anyway. Special effects and swashbuckling are just the light show. The heart of your character—and your reader—is in the sequel.

Comments welcome.

What is Your POV Motive?

Photo credit: JohnPotter Pixabay

By Debbie Burke


Why does a writer choose to tell a story from a particular point of view?

Recently, Chuck, a regular TKZ reader, emailed me with questions about omniscient point of view. He wanted to write the first chapter of his revenge-theme murder mystery from the omniscient POV.

Right away, I knew I wasn’t qualified to advise him. I’ve never written anything  omniscient. The books I read rarely use it because my personal taste has always favored close, intimate POVs.

So I dove down the research rabbit hole to learn more about this mysterious POV.

Masterclass.com offers this definition:

An omniscient narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing…The narrator may occasionally access the consciousness of a few or many different characters.

Some writers use this perspective to create a more “godlike” or deliberately “authorial” persona that allows them to comment on the action with the benefit of distance.

Before TV, films, internet, and streaming, most people didn’t venture far from the places they were born. Travel was the domain of the wealthy.

Charles Dickens – Wikimedia

Therefore, books were ships that carried readers to distant shores they would never personally set foot on; to exotic worlds constructed from the author’s descriptions; to smells, sights, sounds, textures, and tastes readers could only imagine.

World building was crucial. 

Leo Tolstoy – CC BY-SA 3.0





Authors like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien spent many pages explaining the physical, social, religious, economic, historic, and psychological elements of the story world.

J.R.R. Tolkien – public domain




But as communication increased and the world became smaller, authors no longer had to paint such detailed pictures.

Reader interest shifted to characters who were fascinating or with whom readers could identify. They wanted go deeper into the characters’ hearts and minds to vicariously experience their fears, elation, rage, joy, doubt, guilt, pride, disappointment, lust, etc.

In today’s book market, close third and first person POVs are the most prevalent, although epic fantasy with its detailed world building still uses omniscient POV.

According to a 2016 New York Times article by Elliott Holt:

The effects of omniscience are authority and scope; novels with such narrators seem especially confident. The characters may be uncertain, but we sense the controlling force above them. Omniscience reinforces that we are reading fiction.

Some readers like that quality while others see it as authorial intrusion.

Holt goes on to say:

We know we’re being watched, by traffic and security cameras, by our employers, by the N.S.A., by random people taking pictures with their phones. We’re aware of the threat of hackers and cybercrime…Technological transcendence is “spooky”: Perhaps omniscience taps into this collective fear about loss of privacy.

Hmm. That explains why I personally avoid omniscient POV.

The most comprehensive article I found about omniscient POV is by John Matthew Fox of Book Fox at this link.

John provides clear, understandable explanations. For instance, in discussing show vs. tell, he says:

Third person omniscient is often more telling than showing, because the narrator is an objective observer. It’s like you’re telling someone about a movie you just saw.

He defines two types of third-person omniscient POV:

Objective: The narrator knows all, but they’re an observer. They can’t get into the characters’ heads, but are telling the story from somewhere outside.

Subjective: The narrator is an observer with opinions. We get a sense of what the narrator thinks about every character, in a judgy kind of way.

He says one advantage is the narrator “can dispense information that no character knows.” But he cautions: “many writers slide over into head hopping.”

He goes on to elaborate:

Where this gets confusing, especially for new writers, is in third person omniscient. Some newer writers think that head hopping and third person omniscient are the same thing, or at least close. This is not true. Third person omniscient tells a story from one perspective: the narrator’s. The narrator shouldn’t tell us the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, or any of the characters.

The narrator shows us how the characters feel through action and dialogue, not by hopping into the character’s heads to reveal what they’re thinking. The story is told from the narrator’s perspective, like the narrator is a character.

Here is John’s most compelling argument against using omniscient POV:

Literary agents and publishers are so reluctant to consider third person omniscient, and they’re not going to do it for a new writer. If you really want to try third person omniscient, do it for a very limited time, like the first chapter, to describe the setting. Sort of like a wide shot in a movie, writing the first chapter in third person omniscient can work.


As writers, we like to experiment with new ways to tell stories. Some experiments work, others fall flat, and a few explode in our faces.

After researching, my suggestions to Chuck are:

Examine your motive for using omniscient. Why is it the absolute best way to introduce your story? If it’s merely a gimmick or experiment, rethink the choice. 

Run the first chapter by critiquers and beta readers. They’ll help you judge if it works or not.  

Before submitting to agents or editors, understand that many are predisposed to dislike it.

If you use omniscient POV, be darn sure it’s done correctly and effectively.


TKZers: Please share books you’ve read that use omniscient POV. Which work and which don’t?

Why do you like or dislike omniscient POV?



In Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky, a drone gives an omniscient–and sinister–point of view. Please check it out at these links: 


Other online booksellers

A Kill Zone Exclusive – The Show & Tell Book – Guest Photographer William Greiner

Jordan Dane

I am so happy to have photographer William Greiner as my guest today. I am one of the lucky authors who had an opportunity to contribute to his book – Show & Tell – a beautiful hardbound book that combines his photographs with short stories from authors with names you will recognize. The book comes from UL Press (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press) and is available now at this LINK

Below is the page image of the photo I wrote about in my story – On Her Special Day. I wanted you to see the fine quality of this book. I’ve ordered some for Christmas gifts and can’t wait to read what the other authors wrote. Welcome, William!

Show & Tell-show and tell, show & tell, william greiner
Cover – Show & Tell
photo (2)
On Her Special Day by Jordan Dane

So why is a book titled SHOW & TELL being blogged about on The Kill Zone?

First, the premise was to give a group of fiction writers (In this case 28 in total, including 6 TKZ writers), a photograph without any information about the image and ask each to make up a story about that image. The resulting stories are fascinating, entertaining and thrilling.

John Ramsey Miller, John Gilstrap, Joe Moore, Jordan Dane, Joe Hartlaub and James Scott Bell, amongst others, apply their writing skills to bring a story to every image.

“A Blur of Motion” by John Ramsey Miller

“The Touch” by John Gilstrap

The idea for this book came to me many years ago after doing a print trade with another photographer. In conversation, it somehow became apparent that this other photographer had a complete different take and understanding of my photograph than what it meant to me. It made me realize we all bring our own notions, expectations and experiences to what we view.

To see what your favorite TKZ author sees & tells, order SHOW & TELL from UL Press, hardbound, 28 photographs accompanied by 28 stories, 183 pages, $35. To order: click this LINK.

William Greiner is a photographer and artist, living in Baton Rouge , LA. For more on our guest, click HERE.

For Discussion: Have you ever seen a photograph that inspired you to write about it? Tell us about it.