Showing not Telling

Showing not Telling

Today we’ll be discussing the principle of “show don't tell.” Let’s start off by saying this is important to create strong writing, but like all things there’s a balance to strike.

Times when it’s okay to tell rather than show include: showing the passage of time (two weeks had passed in silence before Tom saw her again) and to connect scenes, when including backstory to keep it concise, giving details that are not important to the story.

So how do we accomplish showing instead? The first is to remember to describe all five senses. This will really immerse the reader in the scene. Most of us only write about one or two senses so challenge yourself to include details for all five senses in your scenes. Also include setting, body language and clothing choices for your characters, language usage and voice, your character’s actions, and unique details in your descriptions of characters. I personally love to show off the character’s personality through description. For example, I have a character with a beauty mark she covers up with a lot of makeup. It tells you about her insecurity with the mark that she works hard to cover it, which can tell you a little bit about her perfectionistic personality.

Avoid telling verbs like thought, wondered, felt, heard, saw. These remind the reader of the of the author’s presence, which pulls them out of the scene. Especially avoid telling emotions (using felt or thought.) Give the reader space to experience emotions without author intrusion. Instead of saying he felt angry, show him clenching his jaw as his hands balled into fists. Show the throbbing vein in his forehead and his mottled red cheeks as he works his jaw.

Avoid relying on adverbs to tell emotion or how a character acted. Instead pick stronger verbs. For instance, instead of saying he ran quickly, use “he sprinted across.” Instead of using, “she said sarcastically,” use, “she said, rolling her eyes and sighing.” Describe hand, face, and body gestures and actions instead to convey the emotion used in your dialogue. Instead of “I love you,” he whispered softly, use he took her hand in his, tracing the line of her palm with the tips of his fingers. “I love you.”

But like all things, do this with balance in mind. There is nothing wrong with adverbs when they are strong and doing what they should. Sometimes the adverb is the perfect word to describe the mood or emotion, so using that word gives impact or conciseness of language and words used. If that is the case, the adverb is fine to use.

One thing to consider when describing a scene is which character’s perspective you are writing from. A teenage boy’s description of a kitchen’s décor will be different than what a middle-aged woman will notice. Describe the scene appropriately based on your characters. You can begin with a couple of specific details or give an overall impression of the setting or a combination of the two. Avoid being too flowery or overwrought with your descriptions. The main point is to keep your pacing moving forward.

Details you decide to include should be important. Don’t waste a lot of time describing something that will never come up again in your plot. On the other hand, if your character is going to use an object later on in your story, you better plant it in the description of it beforehand.

Use specific nouns along with strong verbs. Have your character collapse into a worn, leather couch. Have them skip past their mother’s rose bush. Have them gulp down orange juice from a chipped coffee mug. Be specific. It paints a better picture.

As I said in the beginning, there’s a balance you need to master for showing and telling. There is such a thing as too much showing. For instance, he walked towards me with a dancer’s grace, in total control of each miniscule movement. His features were that of a chiseled statue with a roman nose, full lips, and a strong jawline underneath a slightly brooding countenance. His shirt, the shade of falling twilight, brought out his eyes that were the blue of a summer’s day. His demeanor was one of soft confidence but not of garish conceit, and when he spoke it was as if… There’s a lot of flowery language in that description and it’s getting heavy-handed. Aim for one telling statement for every few showing descriptions that you use.

Showing instead of telling is an important skill for writers to master. The following prompt can help you practice this skill: Write about the way you feel right now using only action and sensory detail. Do not use any feeling words (sad, angry, tired).

Post your examples below or any tips you have for show don’t tell. As always, happy writing!

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