The idea of “show versus tell” is ingrained in most trained writers from the beginning. It’s one of the first things they teach you in Creative Writing, and you spend most of your workshop hours are spent struggling to figure out how to do this. Never fear! I’m about to spring some tips on you!
Why Is This Important?
In nearly any narrative, your job as the writer is to make the reader believe this work is happening. It is your job not only to create the words on the page, but the world in which the reader is supposed to immerse themselves. Think of it like this: your story is like a dream for the reader. That’s why so many people like reading! It’s a place you can escape the real world and imagine others. When you’re simply telling the reader what’s going on, you’re not submerging them in your dream along with you.
Mandy walked up to Fredrick very angry. He looked perfect. She *was *seeing red and hated him.
*look! Passive voice!
*look! A cliché saying!
Mandy’s very veins ached with fury as the inferno burned inside her stomach. Frederick, that ass, she thought. Look at his gelled hair and dumb smile. I’ll kill him.
As she neared Frederick, Mandy remembered just how much she hated the guy. The closer she came to him, the more she had trouble keeping her fist from jutting out and “accidentally” hitting him.
There are so many ways you could show this!
Let’s break down the differences between these examples.
In the telling version, we see Mandy walking up to Frederick.
Walking in itself is a boring verb. Even here, we could switch it to something stronger to inform the reader as to how she’s feeling: stormed, marched, stomped, stalked, skulked, closed in on, paced, pursued, etc!
The same can be said for “perfect”. This is a vague way of describing anything.
In general, be as specific as you can wherever you can.
How does she walk up to him? What makes him perfect? What does it mean that she sees red?
Feelings are hard to describe in words. That’s why they call them feelings. In my experience, it’s important to know why our character feels a certain way. Then you can figure out how they go through that emotion.
For instance, there are many ways for someone to experience anger. They can become loud or quiet, tell the person or bottle it up, their face could become hot, their pulse could speed up, they could decide to confront the person or walk away, etc. Each of these options have nuanced ways impressions they leave on the reader, therefore, they learn more about the character when you’re more specific as well!
No More Wasted Words
Of course, telling is unavoidable at some points. You need some exposition to a scene; otherwise we’d be drowning in details and never get to the meat of the thing. You want to do this sparingly and only when elaborating would drag down the pace.
Using economy in writing is important. You don’t want to bog down the reader with too many details or risk dumping a load of information on them. Why describe something in three vague sentences when you can use two specific ones?
Everything you write is to move the reader through the landscape of this world you’ve created.
If what you’ve written doesn’t tell them something about the character, story, scene, etc, chances are you don’t need it!
Avoid Being a Camera
Television and movies are great. They are a medium of story-telling that’s immediate and gets the audience’s attention. If done well, the actors do all the work in order to get the emotions across and you believe their character feels a certain way.
However, characters in a narrative are not the same as characters in a show or movie. The camera does all the work the author should be doing, so there is no need to describe anything. You see someone walk on screen; they’re angry; she’s focused on this guy; he must be the cause of her anger.
Written down, doesn’t this description seem too simple?
It is your job to dig deeper than just the first few surface layers of a scene.
Every little detail—in your entire novel—is important. They give your readers clues and cues as to what is going on, when, how, and all of the emotional, mental, and physical things going on.
Be a Reader
What is your favorite book? What made you keep reading? What are your favorite characters? Why do you like them so much?
Chances are, the reasons are because the author took the time to be specific and immerse you into their work. How many books have you read where someone is just telling you what’s going on like you’re listening to a radio broadcast, unable to see or feel anything happening? The reader’s mind is a blank screen and it’s your responsibility to make the projector produce images, but at the same time you also want to form a connection to them. You want someone to read a sentence, paragraph, scene, or book and have them see, feel, taste, experience what your characters are experiencing.
When you read something back to yourself, read it once as a writer and a bunch of times as a reader. Put distance between yourself and the book and pretend you’re reading someone else’s words. Is there a connection? Be honest.
Fortunately, if there isn’t, you can fix it by being specific and not wasting words!
In short, showing isn’t as hard as you may think. Imagine it’s like when you were a kid bringing in something special for Show and Tell. Let’s say it’s a teddy bear. If you were the kid that always forgot to bring your special item and had to instead just tell your audience about it, wouldn’t you agree it’d be more difficult for them to form a connection with something so important to you?
Writing is a lot like that. You have this thing you’ve created and you’re so proud of it. You want others to feel the way you do about the story, its world, and its characters, but you can’t do that if they can’t experience it for themselves.
Hope you found this helpful!
How about you? Do you struggle with the show versus tell demons? Do you have a technique or tip you’d like to share? Comment below!
Till next week,