Want to Improve ‘Showing’ Emotions in your Writing? Look at Pictures of Expressive Animals

Allow me to indulge in a little context before I launch into this post. My Fiancé is a dour sort of gentleman. Serious, and regularly called ‘an old man in a young man’s body’. He does serious jobs and works very hard at them.

So to hear him giggling like a little girl is not a common occurrence. But if there’s one thing that can set him off, it’s animals behaving in humorous, human ways.

Things like this:


Recently, he posted this to his Facebook, after a five minute cackle session.

grumpy bird

I came to see what he was laughing at, and have to admit – it’s pretty funny. But that made me think about why. Why do we know this bird is grumpy? What is it about this picture of something that isn’t human that we can instinctively read to create that humour?

There are four main things, I think, that make the bird look grumpy:

  1. The downward turn of his mouth
  2. The pointed stare – looking straight at you
  3. The angle of his head – he’s leaned round something to look straight at you
  4. There’s a suggestion of furrowed brows

Admittedly, the bird probably isn’t grumpy. It’s a well timed photo of the bird’s ‘resting bitch face’, but our brains are designed to interpret meaning. And the meaning we interpret from these signals is that the bird is miffed you’ve taken that last pig-in-blanket.

So how does this help with your writing?

Well, those four things listed above are good indicators of bad mood, of someone being cheesed off with someone else. Rather than saying ‘Dave was angry that Matt took the last pig-in-blanket’, you could use those four indicators to show that emotion.

Humans are often subtle about their emotions. We use micro-expressions – tiny suggestions of our true feelings that are easy to miss. But for us to interpret the emotions in an animal, the body language has to be very obvious.

HIGHLY COMMENDED Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards

HIGHLY COMMENDED Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards

Take this image from the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards (highly recommend you have a look at the winners list – they are brilliant!)

When you look at the image, you interpret it as the seal having a good old belly laugh about something. Now, I don’t know a lot about seals. Perhaps they do have a very good sense of humour, but it’s much more likely this is just a well timed photograph. And again we can use it to identify the body language signifiers for experiencing great amusement at something.

  1. His open mouth, lips turned up, as if caught laughing
  2. The way he’s holding his belly
  3. His head is tipped back
  4. His eyes are closed

We understand these things automatically – trained from birth to decode the behaviour of others and to send our own signals out to others. But when something is so automatic, it can be hard to be conscious of doing it.

So if you find moving from ‘telling’ emotions to ‘showing’ them difficult, take a look at some expressive animals. Read their body language and feed those ideas back into your writing.

And if you need a bit of extra help…The Emotion Thesaurus

One of the biggest problem areas for writers is conveying a character’s emotions to the reader in a unique, compelling way. This book comes to the rescue by highlighting 75 emotions and listing the possible body language cues, thoughts, and visceral responses for each.

Using its easy-to-navigate list format, readers can draw inspiration from character cues that range in intensity to match any emotional moment. The Emotion Thesaurus also tackles common emotion-related writing problems and provides methods to overcome them. 

This writing tool encourages authors to show, not tell emotion and is a creative brainstorming resource for any fiction project. 

I love this book – it’s a comprehensive, easy to use guide to showing character emotions by the team behind Writers Helping Writers. There’s no woolly advice here, just straight information about body language and the psychological development and impact of emotions experienced intensely or over time. A definite must have if you’ve been hearing ‘show don’t tell’ in your feedback.


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(Note: I recommend this book because I bought myself a copy and love it. This is not part of a promotion or review, I just really believe in it’s value as a tool for writers!)


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