How to Show, Not Tell
It has become almost a cliché – the old mantra “Show, not tell” and often you will hear it when receiving a critique. But what, you may ask, does it actually mean? Is the critiquer offering valid advice, or are they just trying to appear sophisticated and smug? And is it in fact a valid point – do you really need to show, not tell? What does it do for the story.
Is it important?
Well, to be honest – no, whether you show instead of telling, will not determine whether you become a popular author or not. MANY best-selling authors do not show, they just tell. Lesley Pearse, Danielle Steele, and my mother’s favourite, MC Beaton all engage in a manner of story telling that is just that, TELLing. Action fiction like Matthew Reilly is also heavy on the Tell. It has a place – and that place is generally quick and easy reads that are fast paced and mostly forgettable. When you consider how many books each of these authors has produced, you realise that they are literally, churning the stories out.
So why do it?
By showing, you turn your book from a forgettable, if enjoyable, read into an experience. One that the reader feels along with the characters, one that may well linger in their mind and stick with them for a considerable time. It brings the characters more fully too life – establishing them as real people instead of just characters.
And it also really does increase your word count.
Okay, but you still haven’t told us what it actually is!
This is something that is easier to demonstrate than do. To show a story instead of telling it, you have to do just that – you have to describe the happenings, the characters, the story in such a manner that the reader actually feels like they are experiencing it.
Take for example:
It was a cold, wet and miserable day. Jennifer felt glum. She hated the rain, she had wanted to go out and ride her new bicycle.
Compare that with:
Jennifer slumped by the window, staring out at the rain. It sleeted down, streaking the glass and dripping down to puddle in the garden and flooding the driveway. “Why did it have to rain today?” She moaned. “It’s saturday, and I wanted to take my new bike down to the park.”
In the second example, we’re not actually saying at any point what emotions Jennifer is feeling – we’re describing how she feels and encouraging the reader to make their own assumptions based on that description. Nor are we saying that it is raining – we are describing the rain. And that is the basics of showing.
You will also notice that it immediately creates a mood, and engages the reader further in the story, by using evocative words, we are creating mental images in the reader’s mind.
Telling is passive, like having the story read to you at bedtime. The reader is clearly divided from the main characters, almost as though they were watching them from afar or on television.
Showing is active, as though the story is actually happening around the reader. It is more immediate, more involving.
How can you tell if something is written in TELL?
1. Lots of adverbs.
The words in particular that end in -ly are examples of TELL. They slow down the story, making the actions of the characters less dramatic.
“Get out of my room,” Jennifer said angrily.
“Get out of my room,” Jennifer roared.
Which of these two sounds more dramatic?
Jennifer walked slowly down the garden path.
Jennifer ambled along the garden path.
Essentially, if you feel tempted to modify an action with an adverb, look instead for one word that will say the same thing.
OR, one thing I do is to read over the sentence, omit the -ly word and see if the sentence still seems to carry the same meaning.
“I’m sorry I broke your bike,” Robert said sadly.
“I’m sorry I broke your bike,” Robert said.
Does it really need to be said that he is sad? Does it add anything to the narrative?
Alternatively, you could just say “I’m sorry I broke your bike,” Robert apologised.
2. Avoid the so called “to be” words:
am, is, are, was, was being, will have been, could have been, to (verb)
Jennifer was staring at her bike. It was a mess. The kea had destroyed it.
Jennifer stared at her bike, aghast; The back tyre buckled, spokes sticking out at weird angles. All of the rubber torn and lying in a tangled heap on the ground. The banana shaped seat ripped open, its innards spilling out onto the pavement. From the fence, the guilty party watched her, his olive green head cocked to one side as though saying to her, “well, you should have put it inside.”
3. Do not start sentences with As or When words.
… Or verbs that end in “-ing”
“Leaping down the stairs, Jennifer rushed to fetch her bike in before dark.”
Jennifer hurtled down the stairs, taking two steps at a time, almost stumbling in her haste to reach the bottom. Outside, daylight had given way to the ever-deepening twilight and with it the creatures of the night – the possums and thieves that lurked out there, waiting to steal her brand new bicycle.
4. Don’t just Look and Feel
Whilst these words do have their purpose, they are not very powerful nor involving. Instead of saying “Robert looked ashamed at his foolish behaviour” you might like to write, “Robert stared at the ground, shuffling from one foot to the other. He refused to look up and meet her gaze.”
“Jennifer felt sad at the state of her bike. If only she had taken better care of it.”
“A great tear leaked from Jennifer’s eye, and she wiped it away, leaving a smear of oil on her cheek. Regret and anger – at herself, warred within her, churning her stomach into an uneasy mess. One action, just one action, and her bike could have been saved from extermination by kea.”
“Realised” is another bad one.
Study movies. In movies, they can’t TELL you anything. Everything is visual, thus, shown. How do you know someone is upset, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc.? Watch movies and write down facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures, etc. Use these to describe your own characters when you’re writing. This is the best way to learn how to SHOW emotion instead of telling it.
Take this sentence and rewrite it without using the words “felt” or “angry.”
Jennifer was angry at her brother for leaving her bike outside.
Jennifer stomped up the stairs and stormed into her brother’s room, ripping the computer console from his hand. He looked up at her, eyes wide.
“You little rat,” she bellowed. “You borrowed my bike again!”
How to Show, not Tell:
1. Abstract VS Concrete:
Use specific details instead of abstract ones. Instead of saying that it is a car, describe the make of it. Keep this relevant to the POV character’s personality – if they are interested in cars – they will know the make and model; if they are not then they will likely just note the colour and type (hatchback, CRV, etc). The more detailed you are, the better the reader’s mental image will be. But don’t go too over the top – we don’t need too many sentences describing every single item. Restrict it to the important ones, ie: recurring ones in the plot, ones that are relevant to the plot or to the character you are trying to create.
Jennifer stopped to admire the bike in the store window. It was wonderful and would be an excellent replacement for her own, battered wreck. She could imagine sitting on it, riding it to school. If only she could afford it.
Jennifer stood before through the store window, face pressed close to the finger-smeared glass. Shading her eyes with her hands, she peered into the gloomy interior. Her eyes caressed the smooth red lines of the bike’s body; the low racing bars, the padded “comfort saddle”. She closed her eyes, imaging for a moment sitting astride it, peddling it down the hill to school, the other students watching in admiration. It would be like flying. Pulling out her empty wallet, she sighed. “One day, it will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.”
2. Use all FIVE senses.
Sight is the easiest one, but the more you use, the more evocative your descriptions will be.
Don’t use “could see” or “The sound of”.
You are walking onto the beach, use all five senses to write a short scene.
The sand is hot and crumbling beneath my feet, making my footing unstable and slowing me from a jog into a more sedate walk. Fragmented, ephemeral clouds trail across the azure sky. Gulls wheel and cry, their voices like forlorn sirens above the gentle sussuration of waves tasting the shore, tickling my toes. A gentle breeze brings with it the strong, somewhat nauseating, scent of deep fried fish; a scent so thick and cloying that I can taste it on my tongue.
3. Avoid cliches like the plague
Metaphors are very useful – but using a cliche is just laziness, and portrays you as being unimaginative. If you wish to use a metaphor or simile, try to avoid one that has been overused before. Make up your own! One thing I like to do, is take into consideration who my narrator is – my narrators are usually not human and would not think in human terms.
For example – take this cliché:
“Her skin was as wrinkled as a prune…”
Now, consider your narrator – have they ever seen a prune? Do they even know what a prune is?
In my case, my narrator was a bird – an omnivorous bird, and she may have eaten a prune at some point in the past, for sure, but would she know what it was? Not necessarily.
So, it became: “Her skin was as wrinkled as sundried roadkill.”
Here are some cliches for you to rewrite:
Her eyes were as blue as the sky.
He looked as old as the hills.
Her hands were as rough as sandpaper.
Note: Metaphors count as Show, but similies are Tell.
4. Vary Sentence Structure
Shorter sharper sentences build tension, and are great for action scenes.
Longer, more complicated sentences will slow the prose and can be great for drawing out the suspense.
Try not to start all sentences with the same word, this is a sure sign of Telling:
The new bike was a thing of beauty. It was painted electric blue, with silver highlights. Its handle bars were low, perfect for picking up speeds on the long smooth roads. Its seat was curved and ergonomically designed for comfort. Its wheels narrow, built for speed. It was, in its entirety, an impressive machine.
Write a short action scene – something that swells to a climax, then has a slower aftermath.
Use sentence structure to help this.
Be aware you may be reading this aloud, so it is probably best to keep it PG rated.
As an added challenge – try to write it without actually saying what your narrator is doing, but concentrating instead on how they are feeling.
5. Use specific actions to make a point:
Don’t just say “Jennifer loved to cycle hard and fast on her new bike” – describe her cycling hard and fast- racing down a hill, the wind tugging at her hair, making her feel like she is flying…
You get my point.
Dialogue is a great way to introduce immediacy and include the reader. Large percentages of books should be written in dialogue and you can do a lot of things in them – you can establish characters’ personalities, share information, and advance the plot.
For example – you have a character who has a rather rough past – they’ve done things they’e regretted. Instead of explaining all this to the reader, why not have them discuss it with someone in a conversation – a psychologist, perhaps, or some friend they are now confiding in.
[Be careful how you do this – as you do not want to do it like an info dump – it needs to appear as though it is a natural consequence of the conversation.]
One thing you should do when writing dialogue, is keep the characters a part of it – we don’t just want to hear the talking heads – we want to see what we’re doing as well. This can go a long way in developing the character’s personalities.
“You little brat,” Jennifer snarled, stamping her foot and glaring at her brother; eyes narrowed and sharp as razors. “The one thing, the only thing, I asked you to do was to never, ever, ever borrow my bike. But you did, and you left it outside.” She gestured, flinging her arm with such abandon that she almost struck Robert in the nose. He ducked, glancing at the mangled, battered mess that had once been her pride and joy.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpered; one foot drawing circles in the carpet, unable to meet her gaze. “I didn’t think… I’ll pay you back. For the damage, I mean.”
“Pay me back?” Jennifer laughed, but it was a dark, nasty laugh, not the funny kind. “Do you realise how much that bike cost me? How many newspapers I had to deliver just to afford it? Pay me back indeed.” She turned her pale, fierce eyes upon him. “You’ll be paying me back until you turn forty.”
Choose two people from this list and write a (short) conversation between them:
(you can make them family, friends, strangers, whatever – and determine their personalities yourself – for this exercise, cliches are fine).
Remember to incorporate actions within the dialogue!
– An elderly man
– A young mother with a preschooler in tow
– A teenage boy
– A 10 year old girl
– A sales clerk
– A four-year old child
– A business man/woman
– A retired woman
– Someone who really, really loves dogs
– A homemaker (male or female)
7. Do not overdo the padding
Don’t get so bogged down in writing detailed descriptions that you lose track of the plot. This should be especially noted in tense scenes – the protagonist not going to be admiring the sand while they’re racing across the beach, being pursued by angry dobermans, nor will they be paying much attention to the salt scent in the air, although they might be able to taste it as they gasp for air.
8. Sometimes it’s okay to Tell
Which brings us to our next point:
When to Tell NOT Show
If it is not really important to the plot (although that also brings the question – does it need to be there at all?).
For the slow, boring bits. You do not need to describe, in great detail, how your character makes coffee, prefers her breakfast and pads around the house for two hours in slippers and a dressing gown before going out to save the world.
If you need to get a lot of information across, and fast, so it doesn’t detract from the main plot.
Most telling not showing will happen at the beginning or end of a scene, this lets the reader know what time has shifted or what has changed.
The idea is BALANCE – Showing evokes emotions and experience, whereas Telling just informs the reader what is going on. Both have their time and place – it is up to you to decide how that might best be done.