Writing Emotion…Without SAYING It!

One of the greatest challenges a writer faces is how to describe emotion without flat-out saying it.

I touched on this lightly on Tuesday, but I want to really linger over this point.

Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass.” This deceptively simple, yet evocative, phrase is often held up to new authors as an example of how to describe something without just telling the reader what they’re supposed to be seeing. So, I’m going to set up a very simple scene and describe what one character is showing, and how the other character is reading it. We’ll see how successful I am based on your comments!


One high-heeled ankle caught on the low lip of the door jamb. She stumbled, her mouth opening in a gasp. With a smooth, practiced motion, he caught her by the arm and placed a hand gently on the small of her back.

“Are you all right?”

She nodded, the movement sharp and jerky. “Uh-huh.”

“Okay. Follow the pressure of my hands.”

He steered her down the tiny corridor and into the larger space of the barroom, gently correcting her course when she moved the wrong way. Guiding her around the snowdrifts of discarded bingo cards left over from earlier in the evening, he aimed for the nearest table.

About three feet away, he said, “Stop.”

She froze in place, her hands twitching at her sides like doves at the end of their death throes. Lifting the chair so it didn’t scrape on the threadbare carpet, he positioned it just so and told her, “Sit.” With a small huff, she sagged into the chair, her head coming up slightly and her hands drifting in the air between her hips and the table.

“Lean forward.” He lifted the chair and shifted it forward about eighteen inches, until her palms met the surface of the table. “You okay?”

“Yes, Sir.” She turned her head from side to side in quick avian flickers with each new noise: the clink of glasses, a burst of laughter, the crack of billiard balls, a low murmur of conversation from the few patrons, most of whom were clustered around the bar. “Where are we?” Lifting a hand, she waved toward her face, half covered with a thick black blindfold. “Are we going to get in trouble?”

Her lips trembled a little, her chin quivering. He offered her a smile, then realized she couldn’t see it.

“We’re fine. They know me here. As long as you don’t get naked or give the room beaver shots, there’s not a whole lot we can’t do.” Reaching out, he found her nipple and gave it a tweak. She gasped.

“You’re mean, Sir. Can’t you tell me?”

“Sorry. Can’t talk. Thirsty,” he croaked, holding his throat with exaggerated drama.

“Sir, has anyone ever told you you’re kind of a dick?” Her lips pressed together firmly.

He laughed.

“Someone might have mentioned it once or twice.” He raised his hand to summon the server, who was huddling behind the bar, shooting nervous looks in their direction. “So…what would you like to drink?”


As the author, I obviously know what she was feeling. (And as a side note, this scene may or may not be based on actual events.) The question here is, did I succeed in conveying what she’s feeling to YOU, gentle reader? I’ll be curious to see whether I did or not…

…But YOUR comments will tell the tale!

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