This is a bit hard to explain so here's are are two examples:

She let out a sigh of relief.

He arched an amused eyebrow.

My theory is this: you only need to directly state the emotion when the action doesn't describe if well or clear enough.

Maybe I'm wrong?

3 Answers 3


In real life, we experience emotions ourselves and we observe them in others. Thus some emotions are observed but not felt and that is fine.

As far as felt emotions are concerned, we feel emotions in response to events. We do not feel an emotion because we are told to feel it. Felt emotion, therefore is created by the events of the story. If you want the reader to feel something when a particular event occurs, then you have to set it up properly as that they feel that emotion.

There are two ways to deal with a seen emotion. One is to describe all the symptoms of the emotion. The other is to state them as you do in your examples.

Hard core show don't tell people will tell you that you should never name them, but the problem with this is that not every emotion is worth an exhaustive description of all its symptoms. And in real life, we don't tend to stand and puzzle out someone's emotions symptom by symptom. We recognize them in a glance. Thus a blow by blow description of the symptoms of an emotion is not really true to how we read people in real life. Sometimes it is the right thing to do, particularly where we may feel an emotion in response to the emotion the character is experiencing. But often is breaks the flow of the narrative is simply not true to the instant reading of emotion that we do most of the time.

To put it another way, sometimes the right thing to say is:

The sky began to redden behind the mountains to the east and slowly the stars faded and inky blue brightened into periwinkle as the first flash of the sun broke the horizon painting the landscape a fiery orange stabbed through with sharp shadows.

And sometimes the right thing to say is:

At sunrise John set out for Phoenix.

It is no different for emotions. There is a time to describe in detail and a time to mention in passing. It all depends on their significance in the moment.

  • 1
    This is an interesting topic. I'm writing a subjective third person narrative and during a traumatic event I have the line, "the vision on the display tore at her chest". I wrote it that way because that's how I've felt the emotion of severe anxiety myself. But then the supporting character shows his observation of her later state as, "He looked over to Skye, but she was staring out of the forward port in silence." Subjective vs objective description of emotional state, I hope. May 10, 2017 at 4:35

The words relief and amused might or might not be helpful, depending on what context is available at the time.

If the "sigh of relief" line is the first line in a scene, then the phrase of relief is a useful, efficient way to distinguish a sigh of relief from a despondent sigh or an annoyed sigh. Without it, the reader doesn't have a clear picture of the mood and will have to catch up as you dribble out more information. This could be jarring if your reader's initial guess is wrong. Yes, some people would say that it violates the "show, don't tell" mantra. But if using a two-word modifier to tell instead of a contrived sentence to show gets to the action faster, I'd tell.

On the other hand, suppose the "amused eyebrow" line is in the middle of a dialogue in which the other character has just said something amusing. Then the reader will naturally picture an amused eyebrow arch instead of a confused or a quizzical one. Though the action alone might have been ambiguous, the action in context was clear. Describing the arch as amusing would then be a bit clunky--an extra word to say what the reader was already picturing anyway.

So I might modify your premise to this: You only need to directly state the emotion when (a) neither the action nor the context describes it clearly enough, and (b) the extra words required to show the emotion indirectly would disrupt the flow of the story.


In the words of a teacher of mine, it depends.

Generally speaking, the actions should convey the emotions, but let's be honest: an action can signify different emotions. Sometimes even opposite ones. Therefore, it's often important to refer them.

What one should avoid is to state emotions flatly or repeatedly.

One technique is to use scenarios that evoke the emotion you want (eg. dark rooms to evoke depression).

Also, you can use figures of speech to transmit them. In Portuguese, a famous example is 'smoking a thoughtful cigar' (from a novel studied in high school literature classes). Of course it isn't the cigar that is thoughtful, but the person smoking it; yet using such figures will help you to introduce the emotions more subtly.

Again, one mustn't overdo it. Once it has been stated that a character is 'thoughtful', the ensuing actions (or lack thereof) should be more than enough to keep the sense of thoughtfulness.

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