If you’ve read my previous post on 15 Ways to Improve Your Writing, you might remember what came in at number 2 on the list: yep, that infernal phrase of the writing community, ‘show, don’t tell’. If you haven’t heard this phrase before, you’re about to get sick of it – and if you have, if you already know it and hate it, I can only apologise.
So brew some tea, grab the nearest cake, and let’s do this!
[NB: I’m not a professional editor or tutor – my advice is for writers from a writer. I’ve been there, done that – and this is what works for me. I hope it works for you, too!]
Show, Don’t Tell
Storytelling. Telling. That’s a misleading term, right there. ‘My novel tells the story of…‘ ‘Let me tell you a story about…‘ ‘A story told for generations…‘ We all grow up with a preconceived notion of what it is to share a story, to tell it, and we forget writing is an art. We’re so desperate to get the plot down that we forget about the person on the other side of the page – the reader – and their enjoyment.
And ‘show, don’t tell’ is all about the reader.
What’s the Difference Between Showing and Telling?
To put it simply, showing shows information, character types, and setting within the story, while telling just tells the reader about those things. It’s the difference between, ‘He felt angry,’ and ‘He clenched his fists.’ Both examples convey the character’s emotion, but the latter brings it to life. It gives the reader something to visualise.
Telling is frowned upon by literary agents and seasoned readers because it’s a very basic method of description. It gets the job done, but it’s flat. It’s dull. It’s boring. Writing should produce some kind of emotional response in the reader. Think of it in terms of food advertising. Which sounds more appetising – a triple chocolate sundae, or a decadent, swirling mixture of ice cream, gooey brownie bites, white chocolate chunks, and lashings of thick chocolate sauce?
Hmm, is anyone else hungry?
Show It Like in the Movies
As a Netflix junkie, I like to think of it like this: if your novel were a movie or a TV show with no narration, how would you convey the information?
– An alcoholic character might slur, stagger, sip, or be surrounded by empty bottles.
– A flustered new mother has dark under-eye circles, sweatpants, baby sick on her shoulder, her house is covered in nappies and booties and toys, and she’s surrounded by wailing. And, you know, there’s probably a baby in her arms.
– A cheating husband calls his wife to say he’s working late. He then pulls off his wedding ring and shoves it in his car’s glove compartment, loosens his tie, and walks into the motel.
When we read something, we create a picture of it in our heads. Don’t leave your readers with just words on the page: give them something to visualise. Do the hard work for them.
Stasis vs. Action
One of the problems with telling is that it’s static: it lays a fact on the page and leaves it there. Showing, however, actively does something to the text.
Think of personality types. If you say, ‘Joanne had always been a clumsy girl,’ it’s just a label tacked onto a name. It’s not real, and it doesn’t do anything. Contrast it with this: ‘Joanne stumbled, her battered shoe scuffing against the pavement. “Someone should fix that paving slab,” she said – for the third time that week.‘ Here, her clumsiness is implied to the reader. Her shoe is ‘battered’ because of frequent scuffs, and she keeps tripping up on the same loose cobblestone.
The result of showing and telling is the same – the reader knows Joanne is clumsy – but showing makes it real. Showing proves it. Without an example, why should the reader believe what you tell them?
Top tip: If you’re writing crime/mystery, showing suspicious details is a must. Blend in clues – such as a villain’s physical injuries or motives – without drawing too much attention to them. Eg. ‘Dwight tugged his sleeve down to cover the bandage. “Nah, it’s nothing bad, I just caught it on the grill yesterday. Right, shall we go, then?”‘
Showing and Telling in Action
Here are a few more examples to show showing in action. (See what I did there?)
Bob was fed up with work and wanted to get home.
Bob rubbed his bleary eyes and flicked them towards the clock on his computer screen. 15:37. It’d been 15:37 for the last hour, at least. Sighing, he threaded his glasses back on and pulled out the Jefferson file from the cabinet. If the afternoon was going to drag into the recesses of eternity, he might as well try to get some work done.
Joanne was clumsy.
Joanne fumbled for the snooze button in the darkness, her elbow haphazardly knocking three books and a water glass onto the carpet. Ah, silence at last.
The house was old and falling apart.
Matilda crept along the cracked pathway, navigating around fallen roof tiles and overgrown weeds. Ivy smothered the front of the house, its finger-like vines reaching in through shattered windowpanes and curling around rusted balcony railings. The house creaked as a wayward gust rattled through its darkened rooms, and Matilda shivered. No wonder the locals called it the ghost house.
Emotions and Abstract Nouns
This might come as a shock, but you shouldn’t mention emotions in your novel.
By that I mean the specific words, like ‘anger’, ‘misery’, and ‘friendship’; in your book, they should be expressed through clenched fists, weeping, and hugs. Every time you find yourself typing an emotion, stop and think about how it would be shown in a movie. How do people react when they’re scared or cold? How does a brave character prove his worth? It’s all in the body language.
Now, not all emotional words need to go – but trust me, most of them aren’t necessary. Don’t cheapen the emotions you do need to state by surrounding them with useless, flat terms – especially if they’re easily avoidable.
If you’re having trouble cutting your emotion-use down, there are some great resources out there, like The Emotion Thesaurus. It lists the physical signifiers for a whole host of complex emotions, so you can just look up your character’s feeling and find a way to express it visually. There are plenty of examples online, too, so have a Google and see what works for you.
Everything in Moderation
If you’ve read my previous post on writing tips, you might remember that my personal motto about writing is ‘everything in moderation‘. That goes for showing, too.
I love showing, I think it’s a brilliant, expressive way to bring our stories to life – but not everything needs special treatment. It’s okay to refer to a taxi driver as, well, ‘a taxi driver‘, or a woman with one line as ‘a woman‘. That’s not the end of the world.
As with all writing techniques, you have to decide what works best for you. Look at my examples above: showing uses up more words. Lots more words. Maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’re a short, succinct writer. That’s fine. It’s about adapting ‘show, don’t tell’ to work with your style to get the most out of your writing.
To avoid getting bogged down in detail, drip-feed information to the reader. Take Joanne’s clumsiness, for example: add in a stumble here and a dropped pencil there, a broken mug in this chapter and an on-fire curtain in that chapter… Spread it out. If Matilda’s visiting a haunted house, describe the building as she explores it, not all at once. If office-worker Bob has a Mohawk, piercings, and one hundred tattoos, then – yep, you guessed it – reveal it slowly. He fiddles with one of his plugs while talking to Jeff in the next cubicle; idly scratches one of his tattooed wrists; nabs a slick of gel from the pot in his drawer to neaten up his hair…
By mixing character, setting, or emotional description with action, you kill two birds with one stone.
So, to sum here, here’s my quick guide to showing.
– Make your words do the hard work for the reader. Use adjectives, emotive verbs, and descriptive terms to make simple actions or events pack a punch. (Eg. ‘He drove down the street,’ vs. ‘He floored the accelerator and clamped his fingers onto the Mustang’s steering wheel, his suburban life shrinking in the rear-view mirror.’
– Avoid too many direct references to emotion, and instead describe body language. Drop redundant emotions. (‘He felt angry’ = bad; ‘His fists shook with anger’ = better; ‘His fists shook uncontrollably‘ = best.)
– Show a character’s personality trait gradually rather than labeling them with it straight away. Drip-feed the information. Let the reader learn about Joanne’s clumsiness by themselves.
– Don’t over show. Not everything needs oodles of detail and description – but make sure every sentence, however big, small, or unimportant, has something special about it. (Eg. ‘An old woman’ vs. ‘A wizened woman’.) Make your work fun to read.
– Experiment. The best way to learn how to write is to write, to practice, to refine. It’ll hurt, and there’ll be tears, and you’ll want to give up fifteen times a day – but it’s the only way to find your style. And, when it comes down to it, style – your writer’s voice – is your most important asset as a novelist. It’s what makes you you.
So show it.
So there you have it: my take on the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. But what do you think? Does too much telling harm a story? Do you like direct emotion references? Are there any showing tricks I’ve missed?
Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!