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I have been told by my friends that my writing seems a bit blunt in the sense of I rarely practice "Show, Don't Tell" (SDT) in my stories. However, I personally find SDT hard because...I just don't get it due to my Asperger Syndrome.

Having Asperger Syndrome means that I simply lack the knowledge non-verbal communication including body languages, facial expression, and social cue. For example, we all know that somebody who "clenches their fist" is someone who is angry or somebody "who raises their eyebrow" is surprised, right? Unfortunately, I didn't know about it for a very good portion of my life. Funnily enough--I learned about these cues from a "Show, Don't Tell" chapter of a writing book.

Obviously, I read more books and I picked up on more social cues and people have publicized lists of phrases commonly used to describe emotions, but it feels..formula-ish. For me, the process for writing SDT is like.

  1. Write the emotion I'm trying to demonstrate (e.g. surprised)
  2. Look up on google what do people do when they're surprised (ooh, they raise their eyebrow.)
  3. Replace the emotion of being surprised in my novel with their action of raising their eyebrow.

It works, but it doesn't take long before I ran out of phrases and starts becoming repetitive. I lack the finesse for SDT and I'm a bit flustered and hope you can provide me with some guidance.

Update:

There has been some (deleted) discussion on the true nature of Asperger Syndrome (ie. how big in a disadvantage are they, are they truly lacking or they just need to "learn it") which has been rather controversial. Regardless of the actual nature of Asperger Syndrome, I think the premise of the question still holds. This is a writing technique question, not a mental health question.

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    How do you know when a person is surprised, or angry, or whatever? – Galastel Jun 1 at 8:47
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    Normally, I will only get people's emotion when they're being explicit. (ie. "You are annoying." or "OMG. This is fascinating.") If you're using sarcasm or "being polite to mean something else", I'm going to miss it. – Realdeo Jun 1 at 10:56
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    What genre are you writing for? Romance body language should matter more than sci-fi in some cases. Also, do you have a problem with SDT when it comes to things other than body language? e.g. a car doesn't just get a flat tire, it starts making scratching sounds, the wheel becomes wobbly and pulls to a side, etc. – poeticvampire Jun 1 at 18:07
  • Please take discussions about autism that are not directly about improving this question to Writing Chat. Thank you. – Monica Cellio Jun 4 at 17:12
  • A good way to give your writing realism is to spend time with and make friends with people that are diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. You will notice they are all different but you can use your observations to build up a well-rounded character. – Matthew Brown aka Lord Matt Jun 13 at 12:50

13 Answers 13

43

I also have Asperger Syndrome. Before I explain how I "write around it", let me talk a little about showing and telling.

Writing isn't what it used to be, and I don't mean that in a bad way. In competing with film and TV for people's attention, novels have started to mimic the way such media tell a story through what can be seen and heard. True, good writing mentions other senses too; but the lesson has been that revealing inner mental states is unnecessary in good story-telling. I won't rehearse the arguments for why you should show rather than tell; this question wasn't about how good such advice is.

OK, so how do we do it?

Modern writers have grown up in an environment where most of the stories they consume are from film and TV, where characters' visible and audible mannerisms show us what they're feeling. As an Aspie, I can understand such inferences don't come easily in real-life interactions. But with fiction, several factors make it easier: the fact that there's a plot with a well-defined beginning, middle and end, providing enough context to infer mental states another way; the fact you can rewind and replay as much as you need to notice little details; and the fact that fictional characters have authors behind them, trying to make their mental-physical correlations as clear as possible and, in particular, as close as possible to the rest of the fiction they and their audience has consumed.

Does this mean I'd expect you to pass a written exam on what each kind of body language means? No, I understand your situation better than that. Even if you "know" the right answer, it can be hard to put into words. But don't worry! You don't actually need to be able to do that. All you need to do is visualize the scene. You can do this whether you're writing a script intended for TV, or a very different format you can imagine getting such an adaptation.

When I visualize my characters doing things, I'll be honest: my brain doesn't invent their appearances ex nihilo. Usually I take fictional characters I know from other visual works, then "recast" them. (The characters I choose might actually contradict how I said my own characters look; it doesn't matter.) But in my mind, I can see new footage they've never been in before, where they do what my plot says they do. OK. What's their body language like when I do that? Unsurprisingly, roughly what other writers would make it, because I've seen so much of how that turns out. My brain has become ingrained with some patterns, even if I don't know what they are, just as I don't need to solve equations to throw a ball.

So before you write the next minute or so of your characters' interactions, close your eyes and try to see them doing it. I'll let you decide whether you need to say their dialogue out loud, and if so where you'll quietly do it. Maybe you'll find this easiest to do at night in your dreams. That's not important: you do you. But as you see it all, your brain will invent body language. It will; it can't help it. So no matter how little you understand that body language, write it down. (If a reader can double-check that it seems natural, that's all the better.) Saying what a character did in one sentence and what they said in another is a popular, and these days arguably indispensable, alternative to traditional dialogue tags, where dangerous telling most frequently arises with writers who know they'll need to work on it.

Now, you may find you see too much body language to remember it all, or to feel it should all be there. Yeah, that's fine too. If you tell me in one example what eyebrows did and in another what hands did and in another where a character's gaze went, that's rich; if you tell me all of them every time, that's boring, like you're filling in every column of a spreadsheet. Note what strikes you most.

A few years ago, I came across Stephenie Meyer's characters' tendency to sigh. I realized one of my novels had a lot of sighing. So I re-read those sections and tried visualizing the scenes again, and noticed every sigh meant something different. Then I visualized them yet again, with the meaning first and foremost, and found the body language changed to something different each time. (Well, OK; I think I visualized each scene twice before moving onto the next one, rather than going through the whole sequence twice, but still.) That did my writing wonders. But you can save this sort of tactic to your redrafting.

20

I'm a professional scientist; my point of view might help. The only way I can think of is to approach it analytically. Body language is a language you don't know. There are books on it, some contradictory (giving you freedom to choose). The parts you are missing is that instead of understanding the language and becoming fluent (on paper), you are trying to translate one word at a time using a cross-language dictionary. surprise=X. Anger=Y. But of course you know people express surprise, anger, boredom and excitement in many ways. You need to become more fluent in the language than just consulting a Spanish-English dictionary one word at a time.

I like and suggest evolutionary psychology, as well. Emotions in animals and in humans serve a purpose, each one of them, that has (on average) contributed to the survival of each species. Understanding how and why we express various emotions helps you determine when, where and how emotion needs to be injected.

I suggest re-reading some best sellers you personally enjoyed, but in analysis mode. Catalog the ways that author described body language and why, at that moment, it was needed. What was the character feeling?

Sometimes the character wasn't feeling anything particularly strong. Action can be used for no other purpose than breaking up blocks of dialogue, to keep the reader's mental image of the scene from fading. We need to remind the reader that this happening in a place to people! That is one valid purpose of describing body language.

But also, people sigh in frustration, or boredom. It oxygenates the brain, to think harder or just stay conscious.

Parse the book and look for body language. The first step of science is typically classification or categorization if you prefer: grouping similar things together. That is the first step toward generalization. The next step is finding relationships between the groups. What do exultation and anger have in common? Or depression and anger? Anger can be related to both "victory" and "defeat", like exultation and depression. Tears may be expressed in anger, that is because the anger is sometimes accompanied by defeat. Tears may be an expression of surrender; people often cry when they reach a point of accepting that they have lost something they wanted, or been beaten. And crying comes in degrees; from wiping a tear away to full voice sobbing.

You can become more fluent in body language, getting past the "substitution" phase, by studying it for yourself. I've never experienced being a dog, but I have owned and trained dogs my whole life, and I have a pretty good idea of how they think and feel.

You can do that with literature. See where body language is used, what emotion the character was experiencing, and the ways that emotion is being expressed. In best selling books you yourself enjoy. Not to plagiarize them, but to generalize your own understanding of how emotions get expressed bodily, with those body parts, so you can then go from the general to original specific prose.

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    Well technically "body language" is communication, not a true language. It has no syntax, no structure, no propositions or predicates. – curiousdannii Jun 2 at 9:54
  • @curiousdannii "there is absolutely a syntax to body language - as well as propositions. I would argue that it's almost entirely propositions since that is exactly what body language conveys - judgements and opinions; and if you get your body language in the wrong order, then it can certainly have different meanings - or even just confuse people. – UKMonkey Jun 3 at 9:01
  • @curiousdannii I find "language" has a fuzzy definition. My post holds up even if you substitute "body signals", but the common usage is "language". A child I know can correctly indicate "stop", "hungry", "thirsty", "hurt", "afraid", "too loud", "Yes", "No", "Can I have more food", "I don't want more", "Can I watch cartoons?" "Play with me", "Hide", and many other states of mind, all with single gestures or sounds. There is no syntax, or order requirement, and no question he is communicating. I suspect language begins in all species this way, and evolves one word at a time. (Continued) – Amadeus Jun 3 at 10:20
  • @curiousdannii I don't see a bright line that crosses from signals to language; in fact syntax and structure are just added signals of meaning, as are word types that qualify meaning. And by "meaning" I mean the state of mind of the speaker. For the child I know, and for body language, the states of mind/emotion are immediate, "in the now". I hesitate to say that being able to signal 100 distinct states of mind is NOT a language. Maybe "language" demands signals must meet some threshold of complexity; but that's a very fuzzy requirement, so it is an inexact word. – Amadeus Jun 3 at 10:38
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1

First of all, show-don't-tell is overrated. Most of classic fiction and much of current popular fiction tells in abundance. Here is the first sentence from Alice in Wonderland:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do.

Lewis Carroll tells us that Alice is getting tired, and yet it is one of the most celebrated classics. Show-don't-tell is one possible approach to writing, but not the only one.

2

Second, there are different narrative viewpoints, some of which are more subjective and emotional while others are more detached and "sober". There are famous books that do not tell or show much about the characters' emotions.

Advice

I don't think that you need to "fake" emotions or a viewpoint into your narrative that you personally don't have in your life. On the contrary, it will likely become an agonizing effort for you and produce writing that doesn't flow and feels contrived.

Before you blindly follow the advice of a single reader, I would recommend that you take some time to re-read a variety of your most favourite books and try to observe yourself while you do it.

  • What do you enjoy most about those books that you miss in others?
  • Which aspects of the writing speak most to you?
  • How do those books portray their characters?

Read with a writer's eye and learn to write from what you love to read. Derive a how-to-write schema from your most cherished books. That is how you want to write. Attempt to write that way, and with time and many books you will develop your own voice.

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    One of the reasons that the celebrated classics are celebrated classics is that the authors know when to "show" and when to "tell". "Show, don't tell" is important for new writers to understand, otherwise their story starts to sound like someone just talking about their day - it forces them to learn different ways to structure and present the story. But, if someone tells you "when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail", that doesn't mean you should try to fix everything with a screwdriver instead - sometimes the problem is a nail. – Chronocidal Jun 3 at 12:54
9

"Show don't tell" is a general rule which basically means: immerse your readers in your story. It's not meant literally (as others have pointed out) and it doesn't just apply to body language.

For example, don't state someone's personality then go into ordinary action and dialogue. Instead, have the character express that personality. If someone is kind to other adults but a strict jerk with his kids, don't tell us that, show it over the course of several scenes. In this case, "show don't tell" means to show us the character polite and thoughtful with his neighbor and coworker but yelling at his son and unfair to his daughter.

We all belong to multiple subcultures where words and actions have different meanings. Your gender, sexual orientation, generation, social class, race, country, and so forth are all important factors and will change how you describe a scene. Your disability is also a subculture. Your disability and my disability will be completely different from each other, though there is also a more general disability subculture.

Autism (whether Asperger's or elsewhere on the spectrum) most definitely gives you a different view of the world. And there's a strong community of people in the US and many other countries who identify proudly as autistic and work to create culture and community.

It's certainly very useful to learn how neurotypical people see the world. Not just for your own sake, but as a writer. You do need to know how an NT writer would approach a scene or a character. But this isn't your culture and you don't need to write as if you were something you're not. Just like black writers need to understand the white world to a degree but they certainly don't have to write like white people.

Autistic people have emotions just like neurotypical people do, but your communication of them is different. How would you describe someone being angry to a friend in a letter? Or if you're telling a story to a group of people? (The story can be funny, heartbreaking, silly, serious, etc, and you can imagine how you'd tell different types of stories here.)

You wouldn't just say "he was angry." But you also wouldn't say "he shook his fist at me" because that's not what would have tipped you off, right? How did you know he was angry? Show that. Now do the same thing telling a story about someone who was sad. Or frustrated. How you show this has to come from your own being. Your voice.

It's also not just about emotions. Think of your characters and what is most important to them. What don't they care about? What do they want? What are their goals? Now show them.

8

I will attempt to guide you through this topic.

Let me start by saying this. I think you're being too hard on yourself because the clichés of how people react in stories is something that we all have to learn anyway, diagnosis or not. We don't usually write as reality is, we write as other people have written. Reality is just the inspiration for it.

What is a cliché?

Things we write are clichés, and writing is all about crafting a long list of written clichés that when put together (people we care about agree) doesn't suck, and isn't just one big cliché as a whole. Figuring out which don't suck, and when and why they don't suck, is very hard for most people and takes years of practice to start figuring out.

The knife sat on the floor, its silver blade stained with blood. Sophia's jaw dropped.

People's jaws very rarely "drop" in real life, yet if it is written like above most understand what it means, and that's why we tend to gloss over it as we read. If, however, a jaw first drops, and then immediately after an eyebrow is raised, and then in the next paragraph a fist is clenched ... then indeed it will be formulaic like you say.

Why?

Start by asking yourself the following question.

What specifically in time and space am I trying to describe?

Every word counts in a story. The starting point is to get yourself a more nuanced understanding of different kinds of situations and what people are thinking and feeling, so that you can imagine your own. Now I understand this might be part of your personal blindspot, but that doesn't mean you can't study typical situations and find some rules of thumbs and principles to eventually build an understanding. Let's break it down.

In the example with the knife, let's say there's a woman who finds it. Let's say it's in her house, and she thought no one had been in there since she left two hours ago. Now, she's walking into her kitchen feeling pretty okay, probably. She might be feeling terrible, but at the very least she's not feeling shocked - yet!

We assume things about how she's feeling (and what she's thinking) as she walks in, because the entire concept of "walking into your kitchen" is itself a cliché, so we know what to expect from her to some degree. She's probably not thinking "oh, I can't wait to ride this horse!" - there's no reason to think there's a horse in there. Similarly, she's probably feeling okay, because she's in her home ... could be worse, right?

Now she sees the knife. It subverts her expectations, because it has blood on it. How she feels and thinks changes, because this is a different kind of cliché than that of "walking into your kitchen" - and it's one she didn't expect, and one that usually means something bad is going on around her.

How do we write better clichés?

Your job here is to make the reader forget that you're describing something to them, and instead focus on what's happening in the story. Compare this knife reaction with the first, simpler one:

The knife sat on the floor, its silver blade stained with blood.

Sophia stopped. Her hand covered her mouth, lingering. Then she jerked back a step, the edge of the table striking her waist, her knees buckling. She shot backward onto the floor, gasping.

This is, if I can say so myself - a much better way to describe her reaction - and significantly more "Show Don't Tell". Let's break down some of what's going on in it!

  1. The knife sat on the floor, its silver blade stained with blood.

By describing this knife, we're implying that she's seen it. She's seen the blood. This is the context for what comes next - so we know what she's reacting to.

  1. Sophia stopped.

The first step of her reaction is to simply stop. This conveys that she's noticing the knife and is now paying attention to it, which makes sense because she just came from what we're calling "the walking into your kitchen cliché". The stop prepares the reader for the fact that she's about to have a reaction, so if the readers weren't paying attention already, they should be now.

  1. Her hand covered her mouth, lingering.

"Covered her mouth" is another well-known cliché, but we're not using it to stand in as her whole reaction, we're using it to describe a part of what's happening in the scene. The gist of Show Don't Tell is exactly this, you describe what's uniquely happening instead of the generic situation. After all, what's a reaction? It's a re-action - an action that follows another. And "lingering" at the end there is a way to signal that she's still processing the scene, because she's pausing in the middle of her reaction.

  1. Then she jerked back a step, the edge of the table striking her waist, her knees buckling.

Sophia understands that there might be immediate danger in her home, and the place she assumed was safe isn't. She's panics, and we know this because she's jerking backward. No one jerks backward randomly after seeing a knife, it must have triggered some kind of negatively motivating feeling, right?

We further realize this by how she bumps into the table. She's not paying attention to what's behind her, because all of her attention is on the threatening situation. That's another way we know how overwhelming it is. It even causes her knees to buckle, connected to another cliché of "legs weak by fear". Finally she falls, and when she falls it's backward because she's instinctively moving away from the knife.

  1. She shot backward onto the floor, gasping.

Is she gasping because of the knife, or because the table startled her while she was sensitive to threats, or because of falling? Narratively speaking, probably a bit of all three, as it all adds up to her shocking experience. The reader doesn't always know the exact details of what causes what in a scene, and sometimes not even the writer knows. But it's telling us a story that distracts us from the clichés we're using, and that's what we are trying to do here.

All of this shows us what her reaction is, by having us read about it as it's happening - without having to be told like this:

Sophia stopped. Her legs were weak with fear, and she fell back as she tried to move away from the knife.

In conclusion

The point of Show Don't Tell is to know what's really going on in your scene, and then describe what we would experience if we were there (the exact boundaries being determined by Point of View). You don't have to tell the reader something if they can make the connection themselves.

7

Writing isn't really about showing what character's feel. It's about making the reader feel.

You could even have a cold-hearted unfeeling robot (Terminator?), as long as that character makes your audience have the emotions you want them to have, you're doing it right.

I'd suggest reading books, watching movies, TV-shows, and when you feel something, try to figure out what they did to make you feel that. Take notes if you need to...

I'm an Aspie myself and I've come to realize, as an Aspie, you have to make social interaction and human emotions into a science. Observe and try to figure things out. Create theories and see if they work.

Yes, it takes longer. Yes, it's harder. In the end, though, you'll probably have a better knowledge of how it works intellectually, as opposed to everyone else that just go by their gut feelings.

Studying the subject of making people feel you will realize that yes, in fact, one way to do it is to show what your characters, and your POV-person feels.

I personally found that one great step in the right direction was to read Margie Lawson's Empowering Character Emotions. But she also has several other lecture packages that might be of interest. I've only read the one so far, but I plan to read more in the future.

One other thing you'll likely come across is that you should be cautious about copying another author verbatim. That's how you risk falling into the cliché-trap.

Masters of writing watch what others do, observe character emotions and then come up with a fresh, new way to write it.

Done right, you'll not only give your readers the emotion you're aiming for but also elation at your fresh, new way of doing it.

When it comes to mastering all these levels of writing and writing for emotions, you could even argue Asperger is an advantage to writers.

My theory is that writers have to deconstruct human behavior before being able to construct it again in their characters. Depending on that deconstruction in our daily lives at least gives us the incentive to push on when others might give up...

And, being an Aspie also forces us to be intellectual and aware of so many things, chances are we'll see things other people, on autopilot, don't notice. And that, in turn, will give us great, important topics to write about. It may even drive us to action that reverberates around the world!

4

You say other's emotions are clear to you when people are giving verbal hints about them - when they're saying "this is fascinating" etc. This is one tool you could use in your writing.

You can hint at emotions through the way a character talks. Commas and repetitions stress what is important; a character whose speech is more abrupt than usual, perhaps skipping "unnecessary" words, is under some sort of tension (whether positive or negative), etc.

You can imply emotions. For example:

"blah blah blah" Adam swallowed; soldiers didn't cry. "blah blah blah"

By the statement "soldiers don't cry" I have implied that Adam is struggling not to burst into tears, for whatever reason. Whatever he's telling, it's sad. This is implied by the fact that he has to tell himself not to cry.

For your POV character, especially if you're writing in first person, you can also sometimes explicitly state the emotion. "That made me angry" is much more natural than "that made me clench my fists". In fact, a character who is in control of himself might be boiling inside while showing very little outward signs of it.


If your self-reflection skills are good, you can try observing yourself when you are surprised, angry, etc. In conversation with others, you're busy doing other things than self-observing, but when you're on your own and something you read, or something on TV elicits a strong emotion in you, you can take a moment to note your own non-verbal cues. As an example, reading a tense passage in a book, I might be biting my knuckles; or pacing nervously around the room, book in hand. If I'm watching something exciting, I will be leaning towards the screen, eyes wide. Etc.

4

I'm an Aspie, and I'm a writer, too. Let me tell you how I did it in one case:

A young child (in Thailand) is following Uncle Kiet, and tells him "I want to be a mahout (elephant wrangler) when I grow up". Uncle Kiet says "that's not for girls". Therefore, I have shown, not told, readers that the young child is a girl, because rather than being told, you come to the conclusion, indirectly, that the child is a girl because of what the uncle said.

Another example (same story) is when she criticizes the Christian missionaries because "we're good Buddhists" (shows her religion) and they "cannot get the year right because they say it's {year, Christian calendar}" (shows the time frame and is dismissive of Christianity) "and {year, Buddhist calendar} is the year" (the awkward syntax shows she's a little girl).

So I would say put some information out there and let the reader conclude what you are not saying.

4

Dialogue as a Way to "Show" Actions or Feelings

There are books (Asimov's Foundation trilogy, for example) that rely heavily on dialogue rather than visual detail or authorial exposition to advance the story. The admonition to show-not-tell is a rule of thumb, not an iron-clad rule, and is intended to invite reader participation or plot advancement without pre-digesting everything for the reader. In fiction, you generally want to engage the reader's thoughts and imagination, rather than telling the reader what to think or feel.

Consider a snippet of dialogue like:

"I was really surprised when you told me you couldn't come to my party," said Judy.

"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," Amy replied. "Can I give you a hug to make it up to you?"

While this could be written in a lot of ways, the snippet is deliberately structured as dialogue with actions and visual elements only spoken or implied. There's still an emotional context, but the fine details have been left to the reader to conjure in their mind's eye. Contrast this with authorial exposition like:

Judy was sad Amy skipped her party. Amy apologized and offered her a hug.

This is pre-digested by the author, and tells the reader what Judy felt and Amy did, rather than showing the scene or interaction. It's quick and rather dry. In context, this might be exactly what a story needs, but too much of it is likely to reduce reactions by the reader, leading to reduced investment in the story.

Fiction readers generally want to feel like they are actively part of the story. To maintain immersion, authors generally create an emotional context for readers to react to. Use whatever narrative structures work for you to do this, but be sure they work for the target audience, too. If you aren't able to engage your readers in this way, you might consider other forms of writing, other genres, or other topics that are a more comfortable fit for your unique skills as a writer. That's not a writing fail; that's just writing diversity.

3

As an alternative option, consider that if you have problems picking up on "show, don't tell" complexity from other writers, other people with Asperger's may well also have the same problem.

You may not need to change your writing style at all. Instead, change your expected audience to people like yourself. Your writing group may not then be your expected audience, and it's fine to brush off criticism for aspects of writing which are central to your style. Consider them, by all means, but also consider whether they're asking you to change something which actually shouldn't be changed. Reviewers are just as likely to be wrong!

1

There are certain guidelines, and principles in writing, but not any real rules per se. There are things which may earn you low marks in school such as poor grammar, etc. But in the real world things are not that simple. Yes, in certain circumstances, it is better to describe in detail instead of just telling it as it is. But, an entire book written in that manner would be tedious and boring.

In writing, every little detail is not always required. Do we really need to know details about every single tree in town, or perhaps there is a specific one with some kind of significance? It is important to keep the scope of the story within certain boundaries, or there will effectively be no plot. Certain facts must be stated to frame around the story, but no further description is really necessary. For example, mentioning that the story takes place after a major historical event such as war, or a natural disaster would set the time and place.

As far as describing interactions with people, this is challenging for most writers. The most important thing is dialogue. Try not to focus too much on body language right away. Once the dialogue is there, it will become easier to fill in the blanks. Think about each verbal exchange, and how the actors would react to it. If you tell them good news, would they be sad or happy, etc. It can be helpful to have a friend proofread your work, and let them tell you about how they would feel, and react to it.

Also, the way people interact with each other in real life is not the same as it is on TV, or on the Internet. Try not to have characters speak too much at one time, and have single sided conversations. The actors should respond in a humanistic sort of way. Real people are not always predictable. They have may differences in mood, they respond differently to people they know and trust, than to others. Remember that every person is an individual, and they have unique personalities.

1

You say "non-verbal communication including body languages, facial expression, and social cue", but this is actually a very narrow aspect of Show, Don't Tell. I think you may be misunderstanding the term a little. To demonstrate, here's a few ways of writing the same thing, ordered (roughly) from most "Tell" to most "Show":

  1. "What are you talking about?" Alice said. She was frightened by Bob's sudden erratic behaviour.
  2. "What are you talking about? Your behaviour is frightening me!" Alice said.
  3. "What are you talking about?" Alice said, visibly frightened
  4. "What are you talking about?" Alice said, wide-eyed, her voice quivering
  5. "What are you talking about?" Alice said, beginning to edge backwards towards the door

In version 1., we're just telling the reader directly what Alice is feeling. As some other answers have said, there's no hard-and-fast rule against this. Some styles, especially comedic, do this a lot to good effect, and in general it's fine to use in moderation. But a whole story told this way can feel flat.

In version 2., we move from narration to dialogue, but still state it directly. This can be fine, but in many cases- like this one- the dialogue feels unnatural. People tend not to speak this way.

In version 3., we avoid the unnatural dialogue by instead communicating her fear through body language. But we're still telling the reader the meaning of that body language directly.

In version 4., we move to just showing the reader what her body language does, and allow them to make the inference.

Version 5. may seem like just a different example of body language, but actually there's a difference. Body language is a form of communication, hence the name. It's just non-verbal as opposed to verbal. But how a character is feeling can be expressed in practical action too. Her movement towards the door isn't body language, it's an action she's taking to achieve a goal, and this- indirectly- tells us about what's going on inside her head. She wants to get out, and that lets us know that she's frightened to the point of feeling physically endangered by the situation. Note that while in this example her action was physical action, this could be dialogue too. If she had said "Put down the knife." that would tell us she was trying to de-escalate the situation, and again show that she felt phyiscally endangered.

Your question is basically about moving from level 3 above to level 4. But I'd say this is perhaps the least important of those steps. Maybe if you're a very visual person you'd like the author to paint a picture of what "visibly frightened" means rather than leave it to your imagination, but that's sort of beside the point of whether you're showing or telling. If body language is difficult for you, don't get caught up on it, just pick a way other than version 4 to demonstrate what's going on.


Another example that might help illustrate the difference, by moving away from dialogue altogether:

Tell: Carl walked up to his bedroom. He didn't want his parents to catch him and realise he'd stayed out so late.

Show: Carl walked up to his bedroom, taking extra care to step over the squeaky floorboard by his parents' bedroom door.

Note that the show version not only doesn't involve body language, it's not even any more descriptive. What it does is replace directly stating information with conveying it through the character's action.

As in the previous example, it almost accidentally gives much more information too. It tells us that Carl isn't totally out-of-it drunk, for example, because he had the presence of mind to step over the floorboard. It also tells us something about his character that he'd even remember that there was one there- either he's a very perceptive person or he's done this a lot. This is one reason why this rule of thumb exists: not only is it more interesting for the reader, it usually paints a richer picture of your characters and setting.

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My take: (amateur writer, feels like I have the same problem as you do)

Books are not a visual medium, be careful about using visual cues (like body language) to describe emotional states. Books however are excellent at portraying mental states. Instead of writing descriptively, consider writing narratively (as in you have a narrator explaining the story to the audience). If nothing else then for practice. Descriptions in books are often about levels of abstractions. The more precise your language the better. Consider if it's not that you are writing emotions to blunt, but everything to blunt. What information does the reader need?

Consider this excerpt from the man of La Mancha and how it explains the emotional state of the good old Don. Especially the second and third paragraph - It tells us how Don Quijote feels, but also how he reacts to his emotions and it tells us about the setting and about what kind of a man Quixada or Quesada is. Now at what point here does it describe in detail his body language?

In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing. An olla of rather more beef than mutton, a salad on most nights, scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a pigeon or so extra on Sundays, made away with three-quarters of his income. The rest of it went in a doublet of fine cloth and velvet breeches and shoes to match for holidays, while on week-days he made a brave figure in his best homespun. He had in his house a housekeeper past forty, a niece under twenty, and a lad for the field and market-place, who used to saddle the hack as well as handle the bill-hook. The age of this gentleman of ours was bordering on fifty; he was of a hardy habit, spare, gaunt-featured, a very early riser and a great sportsman. They will have it his surname was Quixada or Quesada (for here there is some difference of opinion among the authors who write on the subject), although from reasonable conjectures it seems plain that he was called Quexana. This, however, is of but little importance to our tale; it will be enough not to stray a hair's breadth from the truth in the telling of it.

You must know, then, that the above-named gentleman whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all the year round) gave himself up to reading books of chivalry with such ardour and avidity that he almost entirely neglected the pursuit of his field-sports, and even the management of his property; and to such a pitch did his eagerness and infatuation go that he sold many an acre of tillageland to buy books of chivalry to read, and brought home as many of them as he could get. But of all there were none he liked so well as those of the famous Feliciano de Silva's composition, for their lucidity of style and complicated conceits were as pearls in his sight, particularly when in his reading he came upon courtships and cartels, where he often found passages like "the reason of the unreason with which my reason is afflicted so weakens my reason that with reason I murmur at your beauty;" or again, "the high heavens, that of your divinity divinely fortify you with the stars, render you deserving of the desert your greatness deserves." Over conceits of this sort the poor gentleman lost his wits, and used to lie awake striving to understand them and worm the meaning out of them; what Aristotle himself could not have made out or extracted had he come to life again for that special purpose. He was not at all easy about the wounds which Don Belianis gave and took, because it seemed to him that, great as were the surgeons who had cured him, he must have had his face and body covered all over with seams and scars. He commended, however, the author's way of ending his book with the promise of that interminable adventure, and many a time was he tempted to take up his pen and finish it properly as is there proposed, which no doubt he would have done, and made a successful piece of work of it too, had not greater and more absorbing thoughts prevented him.

Many an argument did he have with the curate of his village (a learned man, and a graduate of Siguenza) as to which had been the better knight, Palmerin of England or Amadis of Gaul. Master Nicholas, the village barber, however, used to say that neither of them came up to the Knight of Phoebus, and that if there was any that could compare with him it was Don Galaor, the brother of Amadis of Gaul, because he had a spirit that was equal to every occasion, and was no finikin knight, nor lachrymose like his brother, while in the matter of valour he was not a whit behind him. In short, he became so absorbed in his books that he spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them; and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits. His fancy grew full of what he used to read about in his books, enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, agonies, and all sorts of impossible nonsense; and it so possessed his mind that the whole fabric of invention and fancy he read of was true, that to him no history in the world had more reality in it. He used to say the Cid Ruy Diaz was a very good knight, but that he was not to be compared with the Knight of the Burning Sword who with one back-stroke cut in half two fierce and monstrous giants. He thought more of Bernardo del Carpio because at Roncesvalles he slew Roland in spite of enchantments, availing himself of the artifice of Hercules when he strangled Antaeus the son of Terra in his arms. He approved highly of the giant Morgante, because, although of the giant breed which is always arrogant and ill-conditioned, he alone was affable and well-bred. But above all he admired Reinaldos of Montalban, especially when he saw him sallying forth from his castle and robbing everyone he met, and when beyond the seas he stole that image of Mahomet which, as his history says, was entirely of gold. To have a bout of kicking at that traitor of a Ganelon he would have given his housekeeper, and his niece into the bargain.

Summary: Do not just include emotions, include mental states. Repeat them. Show how the character acts or fails to act on them. Use them as a vehicle to provide information about the character and the setting. Minimize visual descriptions and maximize mental descriptions.

In your example:
1. Character is surprised.
Does he: 
a) Recoil in fear?
b) Leap up from his chair in delight?
c) Snap at the surprise in anger?

Him raising his eyebrow doesn't tell me anything interesting about the scene.

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