Today we’ll be discussing the principle of “show not 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 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 (and yes, this includes killing your darlings. Even when you love the language you masterfully crafted, if it’s not important, cut it out).
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 and clothing choices for your characters, language usage and voice, character’s actions, and unique details in your descriptions of characters.
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 (felt, 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.
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 she said sarcastically, use she said rolling her eyes and sighing. You should also avoid using adverbs in your dialogue tags. 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.”
One thing to consider when describing a scene is which character’s perspective are you 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.
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 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.
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. His features were that of a chiseled statue with a roman nose, full lips, and a strong jawline. His shirt the shade of falling twilight brought out his eyes that were the blue of a summer’s day. 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!