When I read showing in stories with people, they describe facial expressions for showing (among other things). What can a writer use in an animal fantasy? I'm sure it depends on the animal, but aside from a mouse or rat, try a bird, how do you show what the animal is doing, thinking, etc., without making them simply a human dressed up in a rat or animal costume. Sure, you can name things the animal does like a cat that "padded" up the road, instead of running up the road. But soon or later you run out of things.

How can I do showing the animal's feelings, as an animal, when they don't have near the facial expressions and other mannerisms humans do?

Edit: Sorry I forgot to put the animal: Birds

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    Are your animals anthropomorphized? Do they speak and think and have dialogue between them? Just to clarify what exactly you're asking about :)
    – Standback
    Jan 1, 2017 at 7:41
  • Any specific animals?
    – Helmar
    Jan 1, 2017 at 13:06
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    Mercedes Lackey has a lot of semi-sentient birds and highly intelligent gryphons in her fantasy series. Reading those may give you an idea of how to show bird emotions and thoughts. Jan 2, 2017 at 15:10

4 Answers 4


If your animals are anthropomorphized, you can come pretty close to describing human-level expressions, depending on the animal in question.

If your animals are not sentient, you have to study the animal in question to be able to describe its body language. I've had cats my entire life, so I can describe feline facial expressions (eye movements, pupil widening, sniffing, flehmening, ear movements), vocalizations (meows, chattering, purring, growling), and other body language (posture, stalking, stillness, creeping, butt-waggling, tail lashing, happy tail, kneading, wrestling, swatting, use of claws) in great detail to show what a particular cat is thinking or feeling.

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    For non sentient animals, we could also exlplore what goes on in ther mind which is different from ours. Animal minds are different accross species. An action that could make a cat furious, might very well, be the greatest pleasure speaking in terms of a dog.
    – Akash
    Jan 1, 2017 at 16:59
  • What is a non-sentient animal?
    – Lambie
    Jan 1, 2017 at 17:11
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    The difference between animals and humans is the fact humans speak.
    – Lambie
    Jan 1, 2017 at 20:01
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    @Lambie There is a larger difference in terms of intelligence. My cat is not as intelligent as I am. I am sentient, meaning aware of myself. A cat is never going to ponder the meaning of life; but humans will. That is because we are sentient. It's what separates animals from humans. Animals can be incredibly smart, but they cannot be sentient. If they were sentient, then we could no longer consider them animals. Jan 2, 2017 at 2:44
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    Have you ever heard of the search for 'sentient intelligence'? We aren't looking for 'intelligent aliens.' We are looking for 'sentient aliens'. That is, aliens that can think on or above our level. Jan 2, 2017 at 2:45

Here's an example to consider:

Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate.

Now you may be thinking that this example can't possibly be any good since it tells the reader that Peter was frightened, rather than showing his whiskers twitch or something. Because you always always always have to show, right?

Thing is, of course, that this is a line from one of the most famous and best loved animal fables of all time, Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

So how do we reconcile the writing class bromide "show, don't tell" against the work of a great writer? Well, let's look at how Potter handles Peter's emotions in the story.

The story begins with Mrs Rabbit telling her children.

'you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.'

And then Peter sneaks into the garden and accidentally bumps into Mr McGregor:

Mr. McGregor was on his hands and knees planting out young cabbages, but he jumped up and ran after Peter, waving a rake and calling out, 'Stop thief!'

Peter is being chased by a rake-wielding man who put his father in a pie. At this point, the reader knows very well that Peter is frightened. They are frightened for him as well. They don't need to be shown it from his facial expressions. All Potter needs to do is acknowledge it and get on with the story:

Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate.

In the end, therefore, it is not about naming the emotion vs showing outward manifestations of the emotion, it is about telling a story that produces the emotion.

Something to note here in particular is that while this is a story written for young children, Potter does not shy away from the possibility of death. She tells us (yes, tells) right off the bat that Peter's father was killed and put in a pie by the McGregors. This signals us that this is a story in which death is a real possibility. Peter could very easily end up in a pie like his father. And this is what sets up the fear reaction for the reader.

There is no big emotive language here. Mrs. Rabbit's speech is both matter of fact and oblique: "he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor." It is the substance of what is said that is crucial to the story, not the language that is used. In fact, the matter-of-factness of Mrs. Rabbit's speech only adds to the effect. Death is not only possible, among rabbits it is routine. Peter could really die. And we know this not because of a great histrionic speech but because of a simple bit of family history.

If you want a better bromide than "show don't tell", one that holds up better when we look at it in the light of the greats, this is the one I would suggest: "Do it with story, not with language."

And if someone critiquing your story tells you at any point that you should show, not tell something, take that to mean that you have not set the incident up properly.


I am assuming your animals have a world of thier own. They see humans as "others".(i.e They dont speak human tingue or interact with humans like humans do)

First, let me tell you how not to write animal fantasies. Google "Champak", a popular indian comic book series. This series is based solely on animal characters. They own houses and drive cars! This level of detail is fine, if your books are for children below 5 years of age.

Animals have as much feelings as humans do. The way they show their feelings is different from animal to animal. And the loudness with which they show their feelings also depends on the species. Some species are very extroverted (Dogs, dolphins, crows); some are more to themselves (Cats, Eagles). I am not considering how a dog behaves with a human, but only how dogs behave among other animals/ other dogs. Animals can have a different view of the world. A whole new, wierd and upside down world. consider the following lines.

The Proud Dog:

Jack, the Sheriff's Doberman was a proud chap, his tail always stiff with ego. (Like a man's face can be red with anger) He never looked down; everything was beneath his status and height. He loved the sheriff, but had rather little respect for other officers, even the ones superior to the sheriff. He had formed a very low opinion for them, seeing his master always gave them tea and cookies when they came. He felt his master owns them too! (A dog too can have prejudice. And a Dog can interpret feeling in a very weird way! So do some humans).

  • I happened to reread these posts, and what do you suppose overcame me when I read: his tail always stiff with ego?
    – Lambie
    Jan 2, 2017 at 14:20
  • He feels some people are not worthy of him wagging his tail for them. I am not saying all dogs are so, its just an unique trait of Jack.
    – Akash
    Jan 2, 2017 at 17:46

I'm a big fan of doing field research when it comes to my writing. For humans this is nearly free; I just ride the bus, go to lots of public buildings, and people watch.

You didn't mention what type of animals you're writing about, and many people are suggesting they be anthropomorphic, but if you want them to be regular animals I'd suggest watching that animal in a controlled environment if possible.

Go to the zoo, the aquarium, a farm that gives tours, volunteer at the animal shelter, visit an exotic animal rehabilitation center. If it's impossible for you to get out, and observe these animals, you could always watch a bunch of animal documentaries.

I know that what I'm suggesting may not exactly be orthodox, but in my experience sometimes doing research that gets me away from the computer really helps get the creative juices flowing.

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