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The one writing guideline that has altered my writing the most is the Show vs Tell guideline. I was probably far into the "tell" territory before, but sometimes I feel like this guideline is restricting my writing, as I sometimes opt to just give up when met with challenges like showing complex and nuanced emotions instead of just telling them. I just think, "the reader is smart enough to realize what the character is feeling given the context and prior characterization."

When I was talking with a crit partner, they once told me that when it comes to Show vs Tell, it is really showing emotions that is most important. Everything else can be told or shown, not really important. I took this advice to heart and stopped writing more tell-y things like "A face of wintry bleakness", or perhaps of a more common quality, "A face of fuming anger". Instead, I started trying to describe their facial expressions, because just writing "A face of fuming anger" is really the same as writing "His face looked angry/He was angry".

And sure, this advice works fine for simple emotions like anger, sadness, etc. But for more complex and nuanced emotions, it's difficult. An example:

In my book, a friend is telling another friend that someone in his tribe might be alive. This friend had thought their entire tribe was dead, and this had put them into years of apathetic hopelessness and indiscriminate rage. When he is informed by the possibility of a tribe member's survival, he is naturally flooded with hope. But this feels strange to him, and more importantly, dangerous. It's the typical being afraid of hope because of how it raises the stakes. Their avoidance of hope has become a defense mechanism. As such, I wrote

Tseena looked up with him with a face of reluctant hopefulness.

Not very creatively written in it of itself, but that is within my ability to spice up. What I'm really uncertain about is if it is fundamentally off on the wrong foot. It is blatant telling, but is that okay, even if I'm actually telling an emotional state? How does one even show something like "reluctant hopefulness", or another emotion that is more nuanced and complex than just happy, sad, angry, etc.?

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My question is: why are you trying to show complex emotions solely with facial expressions? In fact, solely with a single facial expression?

The situation you describe makes sense, absolutely, and it's more than plausible it would incite both a desperate hope and a fear of that hope in the friend in question. Those sort of strong, contradictory emotions will have an effect on them for longer than the split second needed to make one facial expression, and the emotions are also going to affect:

  • their body language overall
  • what they say
  • any immediate actions they perform
  • any decisions they make

etc.

You can show both the reluctance and the hope through all those things in the entire rest of the scene and probably subsequent scenes as well. In fact, you have to! If you're relying solely on the facial expressions, if Tseena's subsequent reaction and actions don't also communicate how big of an impact this has had on them and how torn they are, it's not going to come off as plausible at all. Telling rather than showing, if you will.

Examples: maybe Tseena and the friend get into a shouting match as Tseena accuses him of being a gullible idiot who doesn't realise when he's obviously being lied to. Maybe they start that way, but halfway through Tseena can't keep up their disbelief anymore and goes "I need to be alone now". Maybe Tseena tries to be dismissive of the possibility but their voice is shaking and at one point they narrowly avoid bursting into tears. Maybe, after Tseena has told the friend how this can't possibly be true, the friend asks them if that means they won't come along to meet this supposed tribe member and Tseena pauses for a long moment staring into space and finally says that no, they're coming. All of these communicate Tseena's emotional state - there's no need to try to squash it into a single sentence.

If you show emotions over time, through different modes, as a sequence instead of in a single instant, it also becomes a lot easier to show multiple contradictory emotions, simply by showing the character flipping between the individual components of that emotion. This works both on the broader scale, and also with the facial expressions issue you started with - I cannot imagine what a "face of reluctant hopefulness" is supposed to look like and the description does nothing for me, but I can easily imagine an expression of shock turning for just an instant to desperate hope, followed by the character shutting down completely except for the way their fists are balled at their sides.

But, you know, see above. Don't leave it at only the facial expressions.

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  • Thank you, this helped a lot! I mean, now that you say it, I don't know how that face would look either. There is an ensuing argument afterwards, and then Tseena rides off in the night. But yeah, I'll fix the whole facial expression thing. – A. Kvåle Sep 13 '20 at 18:11
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    This reminds me of Robert Jordan. His "Wheel of Time" series were superb, but he really managed to cram whole novels into his facial expressions and I still have no idea how they were supposed to look like. :D – Vilx- Sep 14 '20 at 12:26
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Break it down, What would the character be thinking? What would they be doing? What would they be saying?

When in doubt sandwich the character with these questions and you'll naturally end up showing, in the way that fits the character not some strict cookie cutter guideline.

This can't be real. Is it? She stepped forward, reached an arm out, and at the last second pulled it back. "Can, we... Try? I want to try."

That's not the best but should work as an example. Forget only doing faces! The whole body shows emotion, have them recoil, hop with joy, fiddle their fingers, shake a fist, blow an air kiss, smash tables in anger, a body racked with pain, turn away and mutter. Fah, faces are just the beginning. * Tosses a hug * the real problem isn't how to show or thinking that it's too hard so instead telling must be the right way, (it's not) of said multiple emotion writing issues , but limiting them to only one way. Hint: Search deep pov to solve a lot of your showing and telling problems, once you get the hang of it that is. (I'm still working on this myself.)

Another thing to try you could be writing the story in the wrong point of view style for your story. Take a chapter and switch it to first person, or one of the third person and see if this fits better, is it less of a fight? Does it flow better? Also try switching the POV character, sometimes shaking things up like this can shatter a problem like it never existed and boom everything flows.

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