I think everyone has heard the "show don't tell" rule. My question is how can I show same emotion multiple times without the description being the same. For example if my character is scared I can write how his heart raced, his hand where shaking etc. If the character is scared twice in my book I can find some new thing to 'show'. But what if he is scared five or ten times in the book I will soon run out of ways to show his fear. How can I describe the same emotion without it being repetitive?

I am writing in third person limited POV if that's relevant.

3 Answers 3


Think Contextually

Consider the scene at hand to provide with an idea of how the character will react to the specific scare.

If you tie the (scared) reaction that the character exhibits to the particular event each time then your writing will portray a scene which feels real.

Consider A Zombie Story

I don't know what type of story you're writing but consider a zombie story. The first time the character encounters a zombie she is going to have a completely different response than the fifteenth time she encounters one. That is your guide.

If there are new creepier things that happen when she encounters a zombie (or group of zombies) she will react differently otherwise the reader will know she is at a basic level of creeped out and there is no need to show the reaction every time.

However, there will be continual unexpected shocks as your main character turns a corner and encounters a zombie she didn't know was there and that will be normal for your readers.

Just keep the context in mind and each scared reaction should come off just right.


Sometimes showing the same emotion repetitively can be a good thing. Take for example a habit, like rolling your eyes or biting your nails. Characters might have a habit, and you show their emotions by using that habit. You could intentionally repeat yourself, but the trick is to keep that fresh and not abuse it.

He bit at his nails.

His mother reached out, slapping his hand down, "Stop that!"

Then, later,

He worked, and worked. He bit his nails down too far, to the point where it starts to hurt. He hardly noticed.

Then, finally,

His hands rose to his mouth - like they always did - but he stopped himself before he began to bite. He took a deep breath in, and began his speech.

This way you are not only showing the reader how the character is in the current situation, you are establishing their personality and behaviour.


Let me start with an example:

It's the waiting that was the worst. The attack would come, they just didn't know when. Could be another minute. Could be another hour. Ben sat nearby, sharpening his bayonet. Aaron wanted to scream at him to stop making that godawful noise, like a nail scratching glass over and over.

The fear in that short passage has a particular flavour: it's nervousness before an upcoming battle.

Now, every time your character is afraid, their fear would have a slightly different flavour, right? They're in a different situation, they're thinking different thoughts, they're afraid of a different thing. Even if it's, for example, a war novel, and your character is afraid multiple times in similar circumstances, he won't be thinking the same thoughts, would he? The fear of a green rookie is different from that of someone who has seen a few things.

Get into your characters' head. Figure out what exactly they're afraid of in each particular instance, what it is they're thinking. One isn't just "afraid to die". One might wonder whether it would hurt, or be concerned about leaving loved ones behind, or not completing some mission, or one might be more afraid of losing a limb than of actually dying... Or one might not be thinking of what they're afraid of, but of other things - past, future, hopes, failures, family... If the danger is not fully understood, one is very likely to be trying to figure it out. Etc.

The less time your character has to be afraid in each situation, the less time for introspection they have, and so their reaction could be more of one startled - a physical reaction. (A physical habit is also possible in other fear situations - @ErdrikIronrose gives a fine example of a habit that can be shown to illustrate an emotion.)

You can, and should, also rely on setting the atmosphere to convey danger. If the reader is aware of the danger to the character, you needn't say as much about the character being afraid. For example, if enemy planes are flying overhead, and the character is hiding, and maybe someone comments that those bombers are flying low, you understand that the characters in the situation are afraid.

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