Ah, show, don’t tell. One of the most spouted pieces of writing advice, and one of the most confusing.
When I first heard of it, I had no idea what it meant. Surely writing that my character “rose from her chair and walked across the room” was showing? Yes? No? Maybe? No. It’s a no. A hard no. It’s “telling” the reader what the character is doing (and in a very uninspired way).
Showing is using your words to create a picture in the reader’s mind. It’s using words to put them in the moment, to allow them to feel as if they are the characters. That it’s them “pulling their tired bones from the stiff seat and shuffling across the dusty floorboards”. It’s all about forging a connection between the reader and the characters. And it isn’t as confusing as you think.
How To Master Show, Don’t Tell
Like past-me, you might be confused about what exactly show, don’t tell is. It was something I didn‘t know I wasn’t doing until a beta pointed out my book, the one I’d collected a handful of rejections for, was more “tell than show”. I honestly hadn’t realized.
The first thing I did after processing that advice (okay, the second thing, after devouring chocolate first) was to buy Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: (And Really Getting it) by Janice Hardy, and working on a mammoth set of re-writes.
While it’ll take practice to really master the rules (and thankfully I have three other manuscripts to apply my new skills to), the next beta to read my re-written work let me know I was making progress (yay!). The examples below are lifted from my current draft. I hope they—and the other tips I’ve learned along the way—will help you master show, don’t tell.
Find And Replace The “Telling” Words
We all have words we repeat or unnecessary words we delete to strengthen our prose. Other words we should pay attention to as we edit (for the millionth time) are “Telling” words. These are words or phrases that make our sentences read as if we are telling what is happening instead of using words that show or invoke images.
The way to track down these tells is using your find/search tool and re-evaluating any sentence containing the following…
- Began to/started to
- Could see/hear/feel/smell
Telling: When she returned with lunch, Max had demolished most of his meal. Even so, he looked hungrily at the chicken sandwich Sarah handed to Josh.
Showing: When she returned with lunch, Max had demolished most of his meal. Even so, he licked his lips at the chicken sandwich Sarah handed to Josh.
Such a small, simple change, but removing the “looked hungrily” and replacing it with “licked his lips” not only implies “hunger” but makes for a more interesting, visual read.
Telling: He picked up his pace and reached the back entrance of the hospital as the fire alarm began to ring and distant shouts echoed in the cool night air.
Showing: He increased his pace and reached the back sliding doors of the hospital as the fire alarm pierced the night air. Distant shouts echoed, carried by a cool, light breeze.
Telling phrases such as “began to” or “started to” can almost always (and should be) swapped for something active, instantly taking your words from tell to show.
Delve Into Deep POV
Along with showing and not telling, adding Deep POV to your arsenal of writers’ tricks will lift your game. Deep POV is essentially writing the story from the character’s POV—everything they see, think, and feel—and goes very much hand-in-hand with show, don’t tell. To learn more about how to write in Deep POV, check out my How To Write In Deep POV blog post and the following example…
Telling: The pain traveled down Josh’s head, across his neck and into his shoulders where it pooled on his left side, waking it from its numb state. The sensation was surprising at first, then it was replaced with sharpness. It was not a pain caused by power or flames, but one borne from metal and unforgiving edges.
Showing: The pain traveled down his cheek, across his neck and into his shoulders where it pooled on the left, waking the inner muscles from their numb state. Josh’s mouth dropped open at the sensation before his lips drew back and he grimaced at the sharpness. It was not a suffering caused by power or fire, but one borne from metal and unforgiving edges.
Did you feel the pain in the showing example? Was it a better read than the telling sensation which stated Josh’s surprise at the sharpness rather than showing how it affected his body? That’s the magic of Deep POV—and a great companion of show, don’t tell.
Don’t Name Emotions
An easy tell to spot and correct is emotions. Think sentences that say “she yelled angrily” or “he looked sad.” Any part of your MS that names an emotion rather than representing it through dialogue, character action, or physical reactions should be given a second look.
Telling Emotion:…having to spend it with Sarah and listening to her mock Eve’s beliefs. It angered Eve, especially when those ideals were something they had both once shared. Now Sarah treated her the way everyone else did.
Showing Emotion:…having to spend it with Sarah and listening to her mock Eve’s beliefs. She squeezed her closed fists at the memory, concentrating on the sharp pinch of fingernails in her skin. Those ideals were something they once shared. Now Sarah treated her the same way everyone else did.
De-Tag And Make The Most Of Your Dialogue
A great way to slot in showing without endless paragraphs of description is to look at where you can de-tag your dialogue of the common “he said”, “she explained”, and throw in action beats.
Telling Tag: “When everyone thinks you’re doing what they expect, they get comfortable,” Eve explained her attire. “When they stop noticing you, you’re free to do the unexpected.”
Showing Action Beat: “When everyone thinks you’re doing what they expect, they get comfortable,” Eve swept her hand through her hair and then smoothed her open palm along her polo shirt and jeans. “When they stop noticing you, you’re free to do the unexpected.”
Using dialogue is also a great way to add in show instead of telling what the character said or did.
Dr. Chen appeared in the doorway next to ask Josh to follow her upstairs for his final tests. She wanted him to change into a hospital gown but he refused, allowing the bad mood Arden put him in to color his curt response.
Showing With Dialogue:
Dr. Chen appeared in the doorway next, her petite frame barely filling it.
“Are you ready to head upstairs?”
“More tests?” Surely he’d done them all by now?
“The final tests. Do you want to slip into a gown, please?”
“No.” Josh refused, allowing the bad mood Arden put him in to color his curt response.
Watch Your Staging
This goes back to our character rising out of their chair example at the start of this post and is another aspect I was doing and not realizing until another beta reader pointed it out.
While showing will give a sense of place and setting, what you don’t need to do is stage direct. How a character got from point A to point B is (in most cases) irrelevant unless it’s critical to the plot.
Staging: Sarah could see his car parked out the front of the store. Her mom’s van was parked around the back and was easier to get to by going through the rear courtyard. They began gathering their things together to head that way. Max gave her a goofy smile as she went to lock the door behind him.
Need To Know: Her mom had parked out the back, so Sarah followed Max to the front door to lock it behind him. “Race you home,” he dared her, throwing Sarah a goofy smile as she pushed the door shut.
Not only does letting go of the staging cut down on unnecessary words, but it increases the pacing. This will keep your readers turning the page instead of putting down the book because you drowned them in descriptions of how a character got out of bed or moved from their house to the car (true story).
Active, present tense—whatever you want to call it—writing in a way that shows what your character is doing rather than telling what they did, ticks the show, don’t tell box and ramps up your action, pacing, and tension.
Telling: He jumped out of bed, his exit far from graceful thanks to the bedsheet wrapped around his ankles, he found himself amongst a scattering of books, photo frames, and mailing bags.
Showing: Jumping out of bed, his feet caught, the bedsheet twisting itself tighter around his ankles. Falling to the floor in a messy heap, he groaned as his chest took the brunt of the hard wooden floor, and found himself amongst a scattering of books, photo frames, and mailing bags.
Using the active “Jumping out of bed” allows for the superior “his feet caught, the bedsheet twisting itself tighter around his ankles” showing instead of the telling “his exit far from graceful thanks to the bedsheet wrapped around his ankles”. It and adding in the more physical “Falling to the floor in a messy heap, he groaned as his chest took the brunt of the hard wooden floor” takes this paragraph to a show of the character falling out of bed, instead of just telling the reader it happened.
Get The Balance Right
As with most writing rules, just because you know the magic show, don’t tell can add to your words, it doesn’t mean you should use it all the time.
A book written completely from a showing perspective will overwhelm the reader and exhaust the writer. Not every sentence needs to be expanded into paragraphs of character movements, thoughts, feelings, and descriptions of detailed settings. Sometimes telling works better and is preferable, for example, in an action scene where your sentences should be short and snappy. Stopping to show everything ruins the tension.
And there you have it! My tips for show, don’t tell. It can be a tricky skill to master but is worthwhile. If you have any of your own tricks to add, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
— K.M. Allan