Show don’t tell is a piece of advice most writers have heard of. But what does this mean in practical terms?
First off, exposition is useful in your writing, as long as you don’t over-indulge.
Fiction is about creating an emotional link between the author’s story and the reader. As the author, we want to help readers create a “suspension of disbelief,” meaning the readers move past the fact that our stories are fabrications.
To do this, we make fiction as plausible as possible and go for the readers’ emotions over their intellect.
One of the top ways to accomplish these two acts is to show the reader what’s happening, instead of telling them.
Telling catalogs emotions and actions. Showing makes the reader feel like they’re in the story. It activates the fives senses, or at least some of them. It’s what the characters do and say that convinces the reader.
Work with immediate physical and emotional actions: wind whipped her cheeks, his face went ashen, a fist curled in her gut.
Use verbs to carry the description. There are so many verbs out there that it’s wrong to ignore them.
Maria walked down the hallway. VS. Maria slinked down the hallway.
The second sentence gives the reader a clearer image of Maria and her mood.
As different verbs can drastically alter the way a reader interprets a scene, sentences can too. Be wary of telling readers how to feel in a sentence. Don’t tell the reader to be surprised, shock the reader with your words.
Think of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. With the line, “The tiny insect-crawl of the second hand was the last thing she saw before the lights went out,” Harris focuses our attention before causing something to happen that makes us jump. Harris shows us something unexpected instead of telling us it’s unexpected.
Showing results in more writing than telling does. But that helps to relieve ambiguity. If we say that the house looked old, the reader is left wondering what “old” looks like in this context.
Saying that the house is choked with vines, its paint flaking, a few of its support beams peeking through the cracks, and its heavy, velvet curtains moth-ridden gives a much stronger image.
Dialogue is also a useful tool in showing, not telling. It can suggest a character’s background, self-image, intelligence, personality, etc.
For example, Jace Wayland’s character in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones:
- “And next time you’re planning to injure yourself to get my attention, just remember that a little sweet talk works wonders.”
- Clary: “Don’t. I’m not really in the mood right now.” Jace: “That’s got to be the first time a girl’s ever said that to me.”
These two examples show Jace’s arrogance and charisma, and that he’s a bit self-centered.
However, there are a few arguments for telling instead of showing. One is briefness. As stated earlier, showing shoots up word count. If an event in your novel is relatively unimportant, it might be better to tell it. Two is recounting events. If your character is retelling an event that readers are already familiar with, don’t spend a ton of time on it. Gloss over it and get to the next big surprise.
For the most part, stick with showing, not telling. Vivid writing grabs readers’ attention. It draws them into the story.
Showing is a vital component of creating vivid stories that suck the reader into your world. So, remember these points when writing:
- Don’t tell readers how to feel, evoke their emotions
- Use strong and specific verbs
- Use expressive dialogue that shows off characters’ attitudes and emotions
- Use well-placed details to activate the senses
One last thing: If there’s a moment in your story or a story you’re reading where you don’t feel convinced, those are moments that are being told instead of shown.
Any specific novels that come to mind that tell instead of show? How about show instead of tell?