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This is a huge question, parts of which have been answered on this site. However, this is one of the biggest challenges writers face, and so I think the question's relevancy matches the amount of work it requires to answer. Before delving in, I'll define what I mean by inner state: a character's emotions, thoughts, desires, motivations, instincts, sensations, etc. Anything going on inside them really.

There are of course plenty of ways to communicate to the reader what's going on inside characters. What I'm looking for is a run-down of these ways, and what they're uses are.

  1. Dialogue says a lot. The characters' inner states can be communicated through their dialogue. A limitation of this method however, is that there's not always more than one character.

  2. Facial expressions / body language (FEBL) is limited by the format. The method is visceral, and a whenever the inner state is complex, it becomes hard to efficiently, nicely and/or reliably convey it through FEBL. Whenever the inner state is basic and common however, I usually run into problems of not having any non-cliché ways to convey the inner state. For shock and fear for example, all I can think of are "He had wide eyes" or "His chin dropped to the floor", or other similar clichés. Due to its basicness and commonness, it feels like everything's been done a million times to the point it's annoying to read/write it again. Also, since these states are so common, they often occur many times in the book, meaning I often run out of the available clichés, therefore having to repeat the ones I've already used.

  3. Monologues or thoughts (thoughts can be differentiated from other writing through italicization) is a method. Monologues can be out-of-character and thoughts can run the risk of spelling things out.

  4. Actions can be used. Similar to the FEBL method in that such communication is visceral in nature. Examples of this method is that someone may growl, or hit the wall, to show anger. A strength of this method is that it also says something about the character's personality, not just their inner state at the moment. This method runs into a lot of the same problems as the FEBL method, because certain inner states are too complex to be described well by actions, whereas other inner states cause inaction. For example, shock often causes inaction. So, why not just describe their inaction? Well, that inaction can often be misinterpreted. If someone stands completely still after some was shot in the head next to them, this can convey shock, or, it can convey apathy towards the situation / person shot. So, inaction isn't too descriptive. Of course, one can describe the inaction with body language / facial expressions, like "they stood frozen", which definitely conveys shock, but then one is no longer using this method. Also, "frozen" is terribly clichéd in my opinion.

  5. One can explicitly state the character's inner state. An example would be "John was angry.", or, "He thought ill of the cashier." This is telling instead of showing however, which a lot of people say is bad. I've also heard it is especially bad when in the context of inner states.

  6. Similes and metaphors can be used. This is usually paired up with the other methods, like "He growled like a dog", or, "John was angrier than a bull." In these cases it makes more sense to look at it as a literary tool used to enact one of the other methods, instead of combination of methods. However, since it can be used without any other methods, making it a method in it of itself, it deserves a spot on the list. Here's an example of a similie being used as a method on its own: "Parth entered the room like a breeze blowing through". It's hard to use this method on its own however, meaning it's usually is paired up with the others, giving it the limitations of the method it is being used with. On its own however, it is just kind of hard to use in a natural way in my opinion.

So, currently, I've listed six methods of conveying the inner state of a character. I have three questions:

  1. Are there more methods?
  2. For what situations are the respective methods best suited for?
  3. How can one mitigate the methods' respective limitations?
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Mix and Match:

I think you have a good set of tools there, but the key is how you use them. I would advise that you rarely ever use just one of these on it's own. Also, some of these can overlap - an action can be dealing with emotion, and internal thoughts can seep out in other ways. I wouldn't advise using italicized thoughts, unless they are specifically thinking words (which most people don't do that often). I'm not a fan of metaphors and similes, but that's a style choice. I wouldn't worry about showing-not-telling when the telling is a description of the narrator's observations, so here it depends on the POV of your story. Never rely on a single descriptor to relate the character's inner state, Even if it is multiple physical descriptions. Use several avenues to relate the image.

So, for example, to combine these elements, you might say:

"Gods-cursed mother..." Maya muttered under her breath. She was seething, but Maya struggled to put on a pleasant face and resisted the urge to rip the man's head off. In the nicest voice she could muster, she said, "Sir, you seemed to have moved the device while it was running. All the parts have torn loose. It will take hours to fix it." She clawed her hand to control her reaction. Dumbass, she thought to herself.

Each part added to her emotional state, including her struggling against her feelings. Most of her actions were emotional, except speaking. Her feelings were expressed as POV of the narrator observing her thoughts, but also in both muttering and internal dialog.

As for individual reactions in each situation, you are somewhat on your own. Careful reading of books will provide numerous examples of each situation. I don't think standing frozen is inappropriate, but perhaps overused (it would be best for terror). Someone could hold their breath, or sharply inhale for example. Making a scene visceral is important when describing. So in your stillness example:

She stood stock still after Tomas's blood spattered her face, then started to tremble. She realized that she wasn't breathing.

This creates a scene of shocked stillness the reader can identify with, even if you don't say what the character is thinking. But if you wanted her to be uncaring, that's even easier:

The spatter of Tomas's blood hit her, and she fought the urge to take cover, knowing it was a stray bullet. The blood was salty, but she spit it out like a piece of bitterfruit. It would take weeks to train in Tomas's replacement.

Or, if you want it to express open malice, you can go with:

She stood still, finally opening her eyes and blinking away the blood. She planned to send the sniper a cleaning bill. Wiping away a bit of brain, she lifted the mike. "What, you couldn't wait thirty seconds for me to be clear?"

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  • Great answer, but I have one question about the following sentence from you answer: "I wouldn't worry about showing-not-telling when the telling is a description of the narrator's observations, so here it depends on the POV of your story." So, if you narrator is 3rd person limited where the character described is not the POV character, or when the POV is 3rd person omniscient or 1st person POV? Because if one straight up says what the POV 3rd person character was feeling, isn't that just telling? However, if it is a different character, that's just storytelling from the POV from the protag?
    – A. Kvåle
    Aug 11 at 13:06
  • @A.Kvåle Yes, to be able to tell-not-show character emotions, it does kind of need to be the point of view character. But while I usually try to keep to just one point of view character, a brief flash to another character (especially if the POV character isn't present) can be quite effective. I have only used this rarely, when my POV character has passed out, to close or open a scene.
    – DWKraus
    Aug 11 at 20:55
  • (1/2) "(...) it does kind of need to be the point of view character." I think I originally misunderstood you. I though you were saying that it is only okay to tell-not-show the inner states of non-POV characters, as the telling is like the POV character is just thinking through the narrator, telling themselves what people around them seem to be experiencing. However, now it sounds like you're saying that it is specifically the character the 3rd person POV is limited to whose inner states can be told-not-shown. This also makes sense, as the narrator is kinda the POV chr., but there's an issue.
    – A. Kvåle
    Aug 12 at 14:37
  • (2/2) The character of which the 3rd person POV is limited to is the conduit between the reader and the story. For that conduit to be as immersive as possible, it is best to show and not tell (at least, that's what I've learned). Now, I can understand how non-POV characters can have their inner states told-not-shown, as that can immerse the reader into the POV character's perception. But if it is the inner state of the POV character that's being told-not-shown, doesn't that break immersion by creating a filter and turning them into abstract info instead of immersive visceral info?
    – A. Kvåle
    Aug 12 at 14:40
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This question identifies most of the obvious methods for showing character state, and the answer by DWKraus includes some good advice and examples.

One method not specifically mentioned above is to note the perceptions of other characters. For example:

John considered Alicia's appearance. She looks furious he thought, I'm glad I'm not the person negotiating with her.

Or two characters can discuss a third:

"What did you think of Alicia's reaction to the proposal?" Marcus asked John.

"I can't think when I've seen someone so contemptuous," he replied. "It felt to me as if she was ready to send for a hazmat team to dispose of the white paper."

"Then perhaps she will consider our offer instead."

In addition to giving us some insight into Alicia's emotions, this hints at those of Marcus as well. But one should remember that John may be badly mistaken, particularly if Alicia is good at putting on an act. This can be a useful plot device, if not overused.

I wouldn't worry about "show-not-tell" in any single short passage. That is a good principle to keep in mind, but occasional telling can be just fine, whoever is doing it, provided it is only occasional, and does not distance the reader from the action too much.

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  • 1
    Great point about characters mentioning their perception of characters inner states. Completely forgot about this method, and I barely use it (or maybe I'm not aware of it most of the time).
    – A. Kvåle
    Aug 11 at 19:35
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Point of View

Depending on your chosen perspective some of your tools can or cannot be used. For instance, the third-person objective point of view does not do internalizations (thoughts) or visceral emotions (more about those below) at all, and every other point of view but the omniscient and the head-hopping can only do one POV character per scene.

If, however, you use multiple points of view, one handy rule to determine who should have POV for a given scene is to use the character that has the most to lose in that scene. This also usually translates to the one with the strongest emotions in that scene.

As a side note, this rule is also handy to focus the story and weed out some scenes that may be beside the point and would otherwise create a story with too many POVs.

I.e. if your POV character is the one with the strongest emotion in the scene you have more tools at your disposal, so it's a great idea to choose the POV character carefully (or design the story so their POV can be used in more scenes).

Some more tools

Apart from the tools you've listed, I also know of the following:

  • Visceral emotions
  • Dialog cues
  • Sensory perceptions
  • Description
  • Backstory

Visceral emotion

When describing emotions from a specific POV character you can use visceral emotion. Margie Lawson describes it in several of her courses, but the gist of visceral emotions is, they are intuitive, involuntary, visceral responses from the POV character. They are physical; clenched jaws, beating heart. Thoughts and simple actions like cursing or jumping when scared are not visceral emotions.

An example from Brenda Novak's "Watch Me" (the bold text is a visceral emotional response):

A sick feeling settled in the pit of his stomach as he went to retrieve the flashlight from the backpack he’d left on the counter.

Dialog cues

Dialog cues is another word for how a character delivers dialog. "How" is the keyword, so a simple, "he said", "she said" is not a dialog cue.

An example from Jordan Dane's, "No One Heard Her Scream" (bold is a dialog cue):

“He couldn’t make it, sweet thing.” Low and sinister, the man’s voice skittered across her skin like spiders.

Sensory perceptions

See, hear, touch, taste, smell... these should definitely be used in fiction and can also be used to give away the internal state of the POV character or another character.

Description

You should always filter description through your POV character, so descriptions can also be used to hint at the internal state of the character.

If he has strong feelings about a place, the description of it will be different than if he had no emotions towards it at all.

Backstory

If you give a character a backstory with emotional wounds and then reveal it bit by bit, it can also help explain and reveal the inner state of the character.

If for instance a character was bullied in school and now someone at their work is bullied, maybe even they themselves, and they react one way or another. Adding thoughts about being bullied will add to the understanding of the reaction and give it nuance.

Avoiding clichés

You've discovered that there are many clichés in your and other's writing. Congratulations. Now you have to brainstorm new and fresh ways to use the tools you've listed.

I suggest creating a list of 5–10 things the character could do, think, feel (viscerally), or say in a given situation, make it crazy, go as far as your imagination will allow you.

Then look at the list, can you use something that isn't a cliché? Maybe roll it back a bit? Instead of ripping the other character's throat out with their teeth, perhaps the character can give them a stiff grin showing their teeth or clip them together. If the character isn't the POV character but is communicating with the POV character, how much of the throat-ripping can the POV character intuit?

It takes hard work to not write clichés. Clichés are easy and lazy. And your readers will know you were too if they see them all over the text, while if you've brainstormed fresh new ways to describe the same old, your readers will love you for it.

Your ability to see the clichés is definitely a first step in the right direction!

Clichés can be allowed in a first draft in order to get the thing done (after all a ton of clichés is far from the biggest problem you could have) just as long as you weed them out in editing.

They can be placeholders, but they need to be replaced.

The internal state is everywhere

You, I, and our characters will all reveal our internal states in what we say (dialog) how we say it (dialog cues), our actions, our body language, facial expressions even our clothes, or how we furnish our home or how tidy we keep our car. This, and more, can be used to give hints on internal states and emotions.

That means that sometimes you have to trust the reader to figure out a character's internal state from very subtle cues, and you have to risk and accept that the reader might not get the exact same image as you do.

If John who's usually a slob has taken his car to the wash and cleaned the inside of it before driving Anne to the mall, we can start suspecting something about his internal state and his intentions towards Anne... does he love her? want to jump into bed with her? is he planning to abduct her? is he mesmerized by how smooth and soft her skin looks...?

Not knowing exactly what John feels and what his internal state is can also heighten tension and work to our advantage. After all, the read becomes trite and boring if everything is obvious and one-dimensional.

There always needs to be tension (or micro tension) on every page of the text. Not knowing exactly what everyone feels and thinks, especially in a situation with danger or conflict, will help to add to that tension.

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