Learning the difference between feeling and emotion: Why “Show don’t tell” is not always good advice

Why "Show don't tell" is not always good advice

Why "Show don't tell" is not always good advice

When I was in school, my teachers wrote on my paper time and time again: “Your telling here. Show instead.” Or, “Show. Don’t tell.” Or, “How can you show this?”

Over time I adopted the words, and I wrote on many a paper to many a student, “Show. Don’t tell,” without really explaining why.

Here’s the problem. Not explaining the why leads to being on the lookout for any word or words that describe feeling or emotion and then seeking ways to elaborate or “show.” Unfortunately, there are plenty of times when you should simply tell.

Here is an example:

Picture a beach. A hurricane has left homes in various stages of wreckage. EMS workers have been recovering the living and the dead for fourteen hours. One of the workers motions for another to come to where she is standing. As he approaches, we read from her perspective that, “Elliot looked as overwhelmed as she felt.” We do not need anything else here. We already know the workers are exhausted (another feeling). Being called to another spot indicates there is little end of that exhaustion in sight. Without anything flowery or overly descriptive, we get it.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to tell feeling and show emotion. Of course, there are times when you will want to show feeling, of course, because there are exceptions to every rule, but feeling should be cause to pause and consider.

In the example above, overwhelmed is a feeling. Exhaustion is a feeling. Did you know that there are somewhere around 3,000 feelings listed in the English language? If you are a nerd like me, click the link to read more. For our purposes, it is enough to know that a feeling such as overwhelmed is a mental association with and/or reaction to an emotion.

Our character is overwhelmed. We have stated that, and it is understood. Why is he overwhelmed? What stimuli has created that feeling? What is the emotion behind the feeling? And how can we show that emotion?

Feeling and emotion are similar, but they are not the same. A feeling is a learned behavior shaped by individual temperament and experience (happy, impulsive, anxious, impulsive, devoted, loved, upset, shy, empty, weary, offended, heartbroken, preoccupied, and on and on).

What is an emotion, and how is it different from a feeling? This fun chart from Christophe Haubursin helps us to understand.


Picture the same beach. The reality is that a body has just been discovered by exhausted EMS workers, and the body is too decomposed to have been from the current disaster. The feeling of exhaustion in conjunction with the reality, can lead to a cycling of various emotions even more complex than the first or second level shown on the chart. It may be a combination of the joy of helping survivors mixed with the anger of finding the beach they love destroyed and the people they love hurt and deceased mixed with the intrigue of the shear force of nature mixed with the despair of not being able to save everyone.

Emotion, as we see from this example, is an intense (but temporary) state of being derived from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others and/or objects. When you are overtaken by an emotion, chemicals such asoxytocin, cortisol, and adrenaline are released; hence, emotions can be measured objectively by blood flow, brain activity, facial expressions and body stance.

Emotions are disruptive. Emotions demand you to show, not tell.

Here is an example from later in the same chapter as used previously:


Katia heard Andrew say something about the children. An unknown voice responded, and it all faded. Then, she was alone in the dark tunnel, mimicking her brother’s verbal coping mechanism of repetition. The body. The body. The body.

She blinked several times in rapid succession and popped her jaw. Words uttered in her direction were making their way in. At least she thought they were directed at her.

“Let’s head in. Get dry. We can regroup and figure this shit out.”

That’s Elliot’s voice. Follow his voice. Elliot’s hand on her arm. Step forward. Stop. Her eyes moved to Elliot’s hand. He was so strong. He was her mentor, her friend. Katia’s mind drifted back to the ring, and the shoe. It was such a vivid shade of purple. She knew that color purple. She knew that shoe.


The realization of who lay crumpled beneath the dune punched her hard in the gut. She collapsed on the wet sand like a rag doll, and the swirling of her vision returned.


The above is not just a feeling. It is the showing of raw, immediate, emotion. In the following minutes and hours and days, Katia will process this emotion, and she will be left with weariness, emptiness, and heartbreak. Those are feelings that will stay with her for days, maybe even years. They are sustainable, where the emotion of the moment is not.

Both feelings and emotion are important in our work. It is equally important to understand the differences between them and how each informs and moves your work along.

Related Links

The difference between feelings and emotions and why you should care

Emotion vs. Feeling: How to evoke more from readers

Published by Tammy Bird, Author

I am a new author who struggles every day to balance my life as an educator and my life as a writer. I know how hard it is to stay positive, to learn, and to give back to those who give but, like you, I want it and so I move forward. Baby steps. I hope you will join me on this amazing journey. We are stronger together!

One thought on “Learning the difference between feeling and emotion: Why “Show don’t tell” is not always good advice

  1. The trick is to remember to balance. While showing can be evocative, sometimes telling is convenient for something that doesn’t need to be dwelt on. You can use only one or the other 100% of the time. Then it’s not prose – it’s a textbook, or it’s a poem. Something along those lines, anyway!


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