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HOW TO TELL READERS WHAT CHARACTERS DON'T WANT TO SHOW

One of the big challenges writers face is conveying the emotions of a character who feels vulnerable. A lack of trust, fear of emotional pain, survival instinct, and protecting one’s reputation are all reasons they might choose to keep their emotions to themselves. But this creates a problem for the author: how can we show readers what the character is feeling when they are trying so hard to hide it from everyone around them? 

Usually the first idea that comes to mind is to insert some character thoughts that allude to exactly what is being felt. But this type of introspection can turn into a lump of telling, and worse, slow down the pace if one isn’t careful. And of course, thoughts only work with the point-of-view character. 

A better option, one that works with any character, is to provide a “tell,” which is a subtle verbal shift, bodily response, or micro gesture that the character has little or no control over. 

 
In real life, no matter how hard we try, our bodies are emotional mirrors, and will give our true feelings away. We can force our hands to unknot, fake nonchalance, smile when we don’t mean it, and lie as needed. However, to the trained eye and ear, tells will leak through: a rushed voice. An off-pitch laugh. Hands that fiddle and smooth. Self-soothing touches to comfort.  Sweating.
 
For a story to have emotional range, our characters will naturally hide what they feel at some point, and when they do, the writer must be ready. Readers will be primed for an emotional response by the scene’s build up, and will be on the lookout for a character’s body language cues.
 
Here is a list of possible tells that will convey to readers that more is going on with your protagonist than they are letting on:
 
Speech Changes: a voice that breaks, drops, or raises in pitch.
 
Micro Hesitations: delayed speech, throat clearing, or slow reaction time which shows a lack of commitment or uncertainty.
 
Forced Reactions: a fake smile, laugh, or verbally agreeing or disagreeing in a way that does not seem genuine.
 
Cancelling Gestures: smiling but stepping back, saying No but reaching out or leaning closer, etc.
 
Fiddling: touching items, clothing, and jewellery for no discernable reason.
 
Stiff Posture: remaining too still and composed, and displaying a tautness in one’s muscles.
 
Flight Instinct: rushing, making excuses to leave or avoid a situation, refusing to make a decision.
 
Lack of Eye Contact: purposefully ignoring someone or something as if it does not exist.
 
Closed Body Posture: body shielding, arms crossing the chest, using one’s hair to hide the face, etc.
 
Visible Visceral Responses: sweating or trembling, skin flushing, an uncontrolled visible shudder, etc.
 
Becoming Less Animated: contributing less to a conversation, gestures that lack enthusiasm, slower movements, etc.
 
Double Entendres: verbal responses that have double meanings or are steeped in sarcasm.
 
Fight Instinct: Intimidation, accusations, and deflecting to steer others away from a certain subject.
 
Overreacting: not being able to take a joke, making logic leaps, or jumping to conclusions.
 
Increasing Personal Space: withdrawing from a group, sitting alone, stepping back, or leaning away.
 
Facial Tightening: eyes that tighten or narrow, lip presses, a rigid jawline, and muscle twinges. 
 
Hand Displays: hands that shake, fingers that curl tight or twitch, actively hiding ones hands in some way (in one’s pockets, behind the back, shoved into armpits, etc.).
 
Out Of Character Behavior: clumsiness, rudeness, a sudden shift to agreeability after being disagreeable or vice-versa, growing less articulate, asking for opinions or advice when one never does, etc. 
 
If an emotion is quite strong, a character often reacts immediately, “showing” that feeling through body language before they can stop themselves. For example, the first thing one might do when shocked is cover the mouth, but if it is important to hide this, that movement might quickly transform into something else: scratching one’s cheek, pushing up one’s glasses, straightening the hair, etc. in order to cover the ‘slip.’ 
 
TIP: think about common ways you express emotion, and then what sort of mannerisms and cues might fit with your character’s personality. If you can determine how they would show an emotion if it were safe to do so first, it can help you decide how they might also hide that feeling.
 
Need another example?  Just try to hold back the feels after reading the first chapter of Immortal Nights by paranormal romance megastar Lynsay Sands. Get the exclusive excerpt only at RT on July 18.
 
 
 
 
Angela AckermanAngela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as four others, including the newly minted Urban Setting and Rural Setting Thesaurus duo. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
 
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Published: 
September, 2016