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How Do I Write About
Emotion in My Novel?

A common mistake among less experienced novelists is telling the reader about a character’s emotions, rather than showing them.

This can seriously hamper your efforts to engage with your readers and draw them into your novel.

Telling rather than showing emotions works against your novel because:

  • It introduces unnecessary words, slowing down the narrative and diluting the drama.

  • Showing rather than telling is a more vivid way of conveying a character’s emotions.

  • By telling, you are spoon-feeding information. Readers generally find it more satisfying to make their own deductions. In order to tell what a character is feeling, readers have to put themselves in the character’s place. This is exactly what you want as it will encourage readers to engage with your book.

  • On the other hand, readers may find it distracting and patronising if you keep on providing information they could work out for themselves.


Let’s take a look at some examples:


The headmaster pointed his finger accusingly at Mike.


From the context it would be obvious to the reader that the headmaster is pointing his finger in an accusing manner. Spelling it out just adds an unnecessary word, slows down the narrative and gives the reader the idea that you don’t think they are capable of deducing things on their own. The sentence would read better as:


The headmaster pointed his finger at Mike.


This example was relatively easy to resolve – it just needed the removal of a redundant word. Sometimes, though, the text might need a little reworking to convey emotion in an effective way. Let’s suppose that Mike really buckled down to some hard work and achieved excellent A level results. It is, of course, an emotional moment when he tells his mum, Sharon.

Sharon felt a huge surge of joy welling up inside her. His dad would have been so proud of him.


In this example we’re told both how Sharon is feeling, and how she thinks Mike’s dad would have felt. It’s all a bit on the nose, portraying a very emotional moment in a rather matter of fact way.

Let’s see how we can revise it:

Sharon drew Mike towards her, hugging him tightly. Wiping tears from her eyes she picked up the silver-framed picture of Roy from the mantelpiece and held it in front of her son.


In this example, we are told nothing of what’s going on in Sharon’s mind – but we still know exactly what she is thinking and feeling. The reference to her hugging Mike and wiping tears away tells us what an emotional moment it is for her. By having her take Roy’s picture from the mantelpiece, the novelist is also clearly letting readers know she is thinking of how proud he would be.

The result of the reworking is a far more vibrant and emotional scene, and one where readers get the satisfaction of doing some of the work for themselves.

Here are a few more examples of revising sentences to show rather than tell:

Ian was feeling very excited.

Ian couldn’t sit still for more than a minute at a time.

Sarah kissed him tenderly on the lips.

Sarah kissed him on the lips.


Jim was very nervous.

Jim tried to take a sip of coffee but his hand was shaking too much.

The phone call left Clare feeling very angry.

Clare ended the call and threw her phone against the wall.


Simon was still worrying about it.

Simon lit his first cigarette for over a year.


Writing about emotion in novels: Conclusion

Simply telling readers how your characters are feeling is likely to leave them a little flat. They want to see for themselves evidence of what emotions people are experiencing. An image of someone doing something that reveals their inner thoughts will leave a stronger impression than simply reading a few words that explain how they are feeling.

A successful novel encourages readers to immerse themselves in the fictional world the author has created. Enabling them to experience the same emotions that the characters are feeling can be a very effective way of drawing readers in.  

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