I’d like to begin this post by sharing the following quote:
There are three areas in which the writer is particularly vulnerable to telling rather than showing:when he tells what happened before the story began;when he tells what a character looks like; and when he tells what a character senses…what he sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes. ~ Sol Stein
Apt advice indeed; but what does it actually mean to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ within your writing? In this post, I intend to attempt to answer this question – albeit briefly – and provide some tips as to how you can implement this approach in your own writing.
Firstly, let’s back up a little. Let’s consider what readers want from a story? To be entertained? Definitely. To be taken to another world? Of course. To connect with a fictional world and, ultimately, empathise with the experiences of its characters? Absolutely. It’s with regards to this latter point that the ‘show, don’t tell’ angle really gains importance; for, if you fail to ‘show’ your fictional world, then readers won’t be able to ‘see’ events unfolding and will most likely fail to connect with your work. The main reason, then, to strive to ‘show’ (apart from the fact that ‘telling’ usually entails clunky writing) is so that we effectively invite readers to fall into our imaginary landscapes, as well as the psyches of those who inhabit it.
So, how do we ‘show’ as opposed to ‘tell’? One way is to use powerful expression that effectively paints a picture for readers. There are a couple of examples included below that demonstrate how to counter ‘telling’ with descriptive prose.
Example 1 ~ Telling:
Jane was furious.
Example 1 ~ Showing:
Jane stormed into the room, her arms slicing through the air. ‘I can’t believe what that idiot just did.’
Example 2 ~ Telling:
The man was frightened.
Example 2 ~ Showing:
The man clenched his jaw to stop his teeth chattering.
Another way to ‘show’ aspects of your fictional world, particularly the dynamics between characters, is to weave action and purposeful dialogue through your prose. Again, I’ve included a couple of examples that demonstrate how to ‘show’ via this method.
Example 1 ~ Telling:
The man was angry with his wife.
Example 1 ~ Showing:
The man thumped his coffee mug on the kitchen bench, then met his wife’s gaze. ‘Jesus, Marie. When are you going to get a grip on reality? We can’t afford to visit your parents right now—flights to the US alone are around four grand.’
Another technique that helps tone down the ‘telling’ in your writing is to be less abstract and more specific; this will not only help bring your writing to life, but will also make it more concrete. Ultimately, specificity lends readers the sense that they’ve stepped inside the fictional world and are privy to experiencing (at least vicariously) the events and interactions unfolding within it. Here’s an example that illustrates how to ‘show’ in this way.
Abstract Writing Example (telling):
Sally was a messy girl who hated doing her homework. She and her mother often fought about how much time she spent watching videos on her computer. There was a significant degree tension between them.
Specific/Concrete Writing Example) showing:
Opening the bedroom door, Sally’s mother, Mrs Patterson, was met by an unruly sight: textbooks lay unopen on the floor, a pile of clothes had been thrown in the corner, lolly papers were scattered everywhere. As Mrs Patterson expected, Sally was in front of her computer.
‘Time to do your homework,’ Mrs Patterson said.
‘Yeah, soon.’ Sally’s gaze remained fixed on the screen.
‘No, not soon – now.’
‘Geez, why can’t you be more like Dad – he never nags the way you do.’
Mrs Patterson took a deep breath before answering: ‘Maybe that’s because he doesn’t live here. He only sees you on weekends, when you have downtime. I’m the one who needs to keep the everyday ship afloat.’
Admittedly the re-write is significantly longer, but I’ll think you agree that it ‘shows’ more than it ‘tells’; it lets the characters walk around, act, breathe, speak – it lets them perform. The re-write also allows readers to imagine they’ve slipped into the scene and taken a seat ring-side to watch the action (which is ‘shown’) unfold.
As is always the case with creative writing, the best way to improve your skills is to practise. There’s tonnes of ‘show, don’t tell’ exercises online that you can access for free. On that note, I’ll sign off and leave you to it. Until next time, happy ‘showing’. ~ Eileen