How many times has someone rammed the phrase “Show, don’t tell” down your throat without actually offering you any help as to how you could do that?
It must have happened to me about eight. million. times. Literally.
Ok so not literally… but the point stands.
Showing, rather than telling, is quite easy in first person; all you have to do is relay information and facts e.g
Rather than saying
"I was ill. I felt so sick."
"My head was thumping and, as I tried to concentrate on the lecture, a bead of cold sweat worked its way down my back. I suppressed a cough, cracking my dry, itchy throat painfully."
However in third person it can be more difficult, mainly because the reader has no direct access to the characters thoughts and innermost feelings. It can be done, though.
Body language is very important to this and can really help to make a point well. In the most basic sense it gives your character life as, honestly, no one stays still as a mannequin through a whole conversation. Or, if they do, its a suspicious way of acting and should be noted. Of course it can also say alot more about your character than they’d like!
The example of Anxiety;
Anxiety, on a personal level (that is to say on the inside), causes feelings of sickness, nervousness, even fear in extreme cases but, while anxiety attacks are pretty obvious, the physical symptoms can be surprisingly subtle and complex.
The first this to remember is peoples ‘tells’ will show something about them too: a young, vain man might smooth his hair, check for dirt under his nails etc. A woman might repeatedly check her make-up, smooth her dress and apply lipgloss/stick while someone who’s seen violence and known ambushes (a soldier or police officer, for example) might take to scrutinizing those around them.
"The anxiety was crippling him."
"The air was oppressive and, as Hunters stomach churned, it pressed on him; crushing his shaking throat beneath the boot of reality. He was trapped. Trapped in here with all these staring goons…"
The example of a liar;
When someone is lying they will, if they’re smart, try their hardest to act normally though the result will, usually, appear contrived. Unless they have no moral compass or are trained to lie with skill (or have a lot of practice).
" ‘Of course I love you.’ She lied smoothly."
"She blinked quickly, eyes darting from his face to her hands,
'Of course I love you, Don….” She smiled and laughed, a high, panicked sound, 'How could you doubt me?'”
The example of sexual arousal;
Hard nipples or tingling nether regions are not body language. Keep in mind that, ideally, your reader should know nothing, or little, more than what characters do. When people are aroused their pupils dilate, their heart rate and body heat rises: this is universal but the way they display this changes from person to person. Some may lean forward, lick their lips, touch their neck or hair, push their chest out (women), splay their legs (men) but it all says something!
"Gary wanted him so badly; Rob was perfect. Sexy as hell and confident too."
"Gary swallowed and let his eyes flicked quickly over Robs lips and face; he was gorgeous but it was more than that. He leaned in and smiled as he recited a story about a childhood dog; it was the way he spoke and smiled. Gary rubbed his lips and squirmed in his seat a little; it was the way he flexed his hands and bit his lips.”
Obviously such examples are not comprehensive but they give an idea of how to move forward. Perhaps a useful thing to do, as a starting point, is to ask
'what do I do when I feel like this/do this?'
Then build upon your findings from there. Alternatively you can study those closest to you; watch what they do with their limbs and face when they say certain things.