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How to Show (Not Tell) an Emotion–A to D

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Emotions show up on your body in a variety of hand movements, eye twitches, breathing patterns and more. There are so many ways to show what your characters are feeling without boring us as readers by saying, Anabelle felt angry. Yuck! Show me, don’t tell me!

Here are some ideas:


  • cold anger
  • clenching jaws or grinding teeth
  • uncovering the teeth
  • headache
  • stomach ache
  • increased and rapid heart rate
  • sweating, especially your palms
  • feeling hot in the neck/face
  • shaking or trembling
  • dizziness

Emotionally you may feel:

  • like you want to get away
  • irritated
  • sad or depressed
  • guilty
  • resentful
  • anxious
  • like striking out verbally or physically

Also, you may notice that you are:

  • rubbing your head
  • cupping your fist with other hand
  • pacing
  • getting sarcastic
  • losing your sense of humor
  • acting in abusive/abrasive manner
  • craving a drink, a smoke or other substances that relax you
  • raising your voice
  • beginning to yell, scream, or cry


  • Sweaty palms.
  • lip-compression
  • lip-bite
  • tongue-show
  • tongue-in-cheek;
  • hand-to-hand, hand-to-body
  • hand-behind-head hand-to-face


  • the eyes and mouth opened wide, the eyebrows raised


  • frown or wrinkle beneath the lower eyelids


  • covering the mouth with the hands
  • rubbing the side of the nose
  • leaning away from you
  • micro shrug
  • voice pitch increases
  • Liars, he says, use more “negative emotion” words (hurt, ugly, nasty) and fewer first-person singulars


  • Recent Loss – through death, divorce, separation, broken relationship, loss of job, money, status, self-confidence, self-esteem, loss of religious faith, loss of interest in friends, sex, hobbies, activities previously enjoyed
  • forehead is wrinkled in the middle, but not across the whole breadth, as when the eyebrows are raised in surprise.
  • Change in Personality – sad, withdrawn, irritable, anxious, tired, apathetic Change in Sleep Patterns – insomnia, often with early waking or oversleeping, nightmares Change in Eating Habits – loss of appetite and weight, or overeating
  • Fear of losing control- harming self or others
  • Low self esteem- feeling worthless, shame, overwhelming guilt, self-hatred, “everyone would be better off without me” No hope for the future – believing things will never get better; that nothing will ever change
  • Other things to watch for- Suicidal impulses, statements, plans; giving away favorite things; previous suicide attempts


  • hold body and head erect, square shoulders and clench fists


  • curled upper lip
  • narrowed or partly closed eyes;
  • side-to-side head-shakes;
  • protrusions of the tongue.
  • guttural sounds (“ach” or “ugh”)
  • nose is drawn up and wrinkled
  • sneers or snarls at another


  • throat-clear is a nonverbal indication of doubt

for more emotions (excitement, fear, happiness, helplessness, lying and obstinacy), click here for the next in the series.

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blogger, Technology in Education featured blogger, and IMS tech expert. She is  the editor of a K-6 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-6 Digital Citizenship curriculum, creator of technology training books for middle school and ebooks on technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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18 thoughts on “How to Show (Not Tell) an Emotion–A to D

  1. Pingback: 70 Collections to Infuse Your Writing | WordDreams...

  2. Excellent suggestions for showing emotions. In my memoir I’m remembering some of the things I used to do – to keep from crying I would make a fist, poking my fingernails into my palm, or poke a fingernail into my let to let me focus on the pain of the nail and perhaps forestall tears. I also used to twist the corner of a Kleenex to make a rope. Biting the inside of my mouth. One other one was to bend the toe next to my big toe so that it caused a nerve to spasm and the pain of that spasm also focused my attention away from the hurt. There was tracing patterns, counting squares on the linoleum, or counting something else. Maybe these would be helpful to someone.


  3. Handy little guide in general. Conveying emotion is always a challenge, and people don’t realize how much we gain from body language in general. Good to see someone thinking about it. My heart’s speeding up at the mere thought of remaining alphabet. . .


  4. When I was working at a government policing organisation I was taught how to read body language (calibrating a person with questions you know are true and then asking the ‘real’ questions). It taught me a lot, but now that I’ve given up my day job to write full time I find it’s followed me and I subconsciously do it when I’m having normal conversations with people. I’ve got to find a way to ‘unteach’ myself because I hate it when someone I know and love starts telling white lies! But then again, it’s very handy when I’m writing a novel😉


      • I’ve been studying it for a few years. Only downside is when you meet someone and recognize negative postures and facial movements—or worse, signs of deception. Although it’s handy if you’re at the car dealership.😉


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