Writers always hear “Show don’t tell!” I remember as a newbie that phrase would be thrown at me, and I would frown at my screen every time.
What does that mean? Add more description? How do I show the story? I didn’t know, so I did what I always do when I’m unsure: I Googled it.
It can be a hard concept to grasp without a lot of practice and reading. There are some amazing quotes out there that are great examples, but they still don’t help writers to understand the meaning behind the phrase.
Fear not, dear writers, I am here to help.
Recognizing the Difference Between Showing vs Telling
Firstly, you need to know the difference between showing and telling. Telling is abstract, passive, and takes less involvement from your readers. It ruins the magic and takes the readers out of the story (you don’t want that).
Showing is the opposite. It’s active and solid and creates mental images that bring your story to life. You can bet that the vivid stories that leave you on the edge of your seat are full of showing.
**This does not mean you can’t have any telling in your story. It can be helpful when used right. One of our goals as writers is to show the majority of our stories and keep the telling to a minimum. **
Signs of Telling to Avoid
- Which are basically any “ly” words that you stick on after “he said.” You shouldn’t modify “said” with an adverb. You can read more on that here at the Case Against Adverbs.
You don’t have to avoid them completely, just use super sparingly. You want to show that your character is experiencing an emotion.
Telling: “I hate you,” she said angrily.
Showing: She threw her purse at his head. “I hate you.” Her face was as red as the gloves he wore, which she swatted away when he reached for her. She couldn’t fathom the thought of him touching her again so she turned and slammed open the door.
I didn’t use the adverb in the second example. I didn’t have to say she was angry, it shows through her actions and appearance. A great book to look into for lists of physical and mental reactions of various emotions is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Guide to Character Expression.
Just be wary about throwing ANY of the listed reactions in. A masculine guy isn’t going to throw his hand to his chest when he’s surprised…most of the time. Be true to your character.
- Avoid the verb “to be” and all of its forms- am, is, are, was, was being, will have been, could have been, and so on. I know they remove me from the story quick as a flash. They also put your story in passive tense. You’ll show more than tell if you can work your writing to avoid using “was” or any form of it.
Telling: It was hot in the room as Danny tried to fix the AC.
Showing: Sweat dripped into Danny’s eyes as he tried to loosen the rusted screws on the AC unit. His shirt clung to his back uncomfortably, despite the open window behind him. With a curse, his slick hand lost its grip on the screwdriver and it clattered to the wood floor.
I didn’t use “was” at all. It paints a clearer image of the level of heat too.
You try it. “It was hot.” Rewrite it to avoid using “was” and “hot” completely. SHOW the weather is hot by describing the level of heat and the character’s/setting’s reactions.
- As and –ing. If you start your sentence with those, you’re telling. “As she strode across the room.” Or “Walking across the room.” They are both usable and okay! But…not as good as you can do.
Telling: Walking across the room, he made heads turn.
Showing: His dazzling jade suit caught the lights on the ceiling and threw sparkles across the room. He smiled when people turned to find the source of the lights.
Does the second seem stronger? Provide better imagery? It’s the same for starting sentences with “as”
- Don’t ONLY use “look” and “feel”
They’re okay words; I’m not saying avoid them completely. However, they aren’t very strong and are definite marks of telling. If you are telling the readers that a character feels a certain way or looks a certain way, you’re taking away their imagination.
Telling: He looked happy as he watched his granddaughter.
It works. You let readers know they’re happy. Is it enough though?
Showing: He huffed out a laugh and clapped his son on the back. They watched as the baby stretched in her crib and he had to blink away tears as his heart seemed to swell in his chest. “You did good, boy,” he whispered thickly.
One of my favorite prompts is the following, because it is the perfect exercise for polishing your showing.
Give it a try. Pick any emotion and use either your main character or make up a character to show us the emotion without naming it.
Tips for Showing
Here are a handful of my favorite tips to keep in mind as you write and aim to avoid telling.
- Use the senses! What does the character see, smell, hear, feel, taste?
- Be specific. What kind of chair is your character in? A recliner? A wooden kitchen chair? What kind of car is it?
- Vary your sentence lengths. If they are all short or all long it makes the story hard to read.
- Dialogue is an amazing tool for showing, but don’t info dump on the readers through it. Reference things the character will know already instead of repeating them- unless they’re pertinent to the story or scene!
- Don’t overwhelm the reader with description. You only need enough to give the readers a picture so they are with you as the story itself happens. Mixing actions and dialogue is a good way to give the readers a visual of the scene as the story unfolds.
Telling is a surefire way to bog down your story and leave the reader feeling left out of the adventure. You can get the story across by telling it, but you don’t get the reader engagement or desire for more. Use your words to paint your story and practice!
Now go forth and conquer!