Show Don’t Tell: Stress

Whether you have an important test coming up, your boss asks you to do a big project at work, or you’re a teacher in any given week, we all experience stress in our lives. How stress affects us and how we deal with stress can be crucial indicators of our character. There are all different types of stress (familial, workplace, friendships, relationships) and everyone deals with them differently. Someone could handle work stress with ease and yet friendship stress could send them into a tizzy. Allowing your readers to witness your characters under different types of stress will show them different and unique aspects of their character.

Dorrance Publishing Show Stress 1

1) Level of Stress

When you’re writing a character under stress, you’ll first need to decide on their level of stress. This involves considering two things: a) What would stress them based on their personality and 2) How much would that event stress them. Different events stress varying personalities at different levels. For example, a character could have a very high-stress job working for 12+ hours a day and be content with it, but they get tasked to babysit and all of a sudden they’re losing sleep. On the other hand, you may have a more laid-back or quirky character who gets stressed over being asked to virtually anything, even something as small as picking up a pen delivery. Simply start by asking yourself a few questions: How stressed do I want my character to be? What, based on my knowledge of their personality, would make them that stressed?

2) Body Language

The first way to show rather than tell stress is through body language. Perhaps the character starts to appear jittery, their hands shaking and their foot taping at all times. Maybe other characters start to notice bags under their eyes, their eyes looking bloodshot, and them displaying a series of nervous ticks like biting their nails, scratching their head, rubbing their forehead, cracking their knuckles, etc. You could have them obviously slapping themselves awake a few times, displaying that they are having trouble sleeping. Each of these pieces of body language allow the readers to see that this character is undergoing an event or circumstance that is leaving them stressed.

Dorrance Publishing Show Stress 2

3) Action

Another manner in which one can show stress to your readers is through action. For example, the stressed character starts to display erratic behavior. They start showing up late to everything, seeming disheveled and dirty. Perhaps they fall asleep at their desk in the middle of class. They start laughing at random and inappropriate moments only to start crying a minute later. If they were more of a homebody, perhaps they suddenly suggest going out and drinking with friends. Maybe they start picking fights with strangers or distancing themselves from friends. Showing how their behavior changes through action can help the reader and the characters within the story note the level of stress the character is under.

4) Dialogue

You can also display character stress or anxiousness through dialogue. Perhaps a very talkative character suddenly has very little to say. Maybe they’ve suddenly become harsh, stress making them lash out at anyone who speaks to them. They could become very sensitive, unable to have conversations without tearing up. Their report with every character will be different, so perhaps someone that they normally love spending time with they suddenly grow distant from knowing that they’ll break down around them. Think about your character’s dynamic with everyone in the story as well as their normal manner of speech. Showing changes in these two aspects of the character will allow the readers to notice further red flags.

Dorrance Publishing Show Stress 3

5) Arc

As with anything in your story, whether it is background noise or not, there needs to be a purpose. Consider the stress that your character is under a mini-arc. Why are they going through this? What does this stress show about the character? Perhaps it shows that a character that we previously thought infallible isn’t as strong as they portrayed themselves to be. Or maybe it challenges a character in an area that will reveal something new about them. Consider how the stress changes the character and how the audience perceives them.

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