by Jodie Renner, fiction editor and author of writing guides
"SHOW, DON’T TELL" is the most familiar mantra among advisors to fiction writers, and one of the most difficult concepts for new fiction writers to grasp. Mastering this concept will make a huge difference in the quality of your stories.
What does it mean? It’s about bringing the scene to life and putting the reader right there, inside your character, experiencing her fear along with her, feeling the sweat on her brow and her adrenaline racing, your pulse quickening right along with hers, muscles tensed, ready to leap into action.
~ Cut back on narration, description, and exposition.
Remember this: Story trumps all. Keep the story moving and the characters interacting. The author stepping in to describe or explain things to the readers brings the story to a screeching halt and can be distracting, boring, and irritating for readers.
~ Don’t tell us what happened – show us what happened.
A common mistake among aspiring fiction writers is to describe or narrate (tell) events as if they took place at some point in the past, instead of putting the reader right in the middle of the action and showing the events as they occur, in real time, along with the characters’ actions, reactions, inner thoughts and feelings, and actual words (direct dialogue in quotations).
To clarify what is meant by “show, don’t tell,” think of it this way: Which would you rather do, go see an exciting movie in a theatre with a big screen and surround sound (“show”), or hear about the movie from someone else afterward (“tell”)? That’s the difference we’re talking about here.
Janet Evanovich considers “show, don’t tell” to be one of the most important principles of fiction: “Instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you’re trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life.”
~ Don’t get in the way or interpret for us.
We like to experience things for ourselves, not hear about them from someone else. Think about watching those slide shows with narration, from your neighbors’ vacation. Yawn. In the same way, readers of popular fiction don’t want to be kept at arm’s length, to be told what’s happening by an intermediary narrator. They want to experience the events firsthand, to see, hear and feel what’s happening. They want to sense the character’s fears, hopes, joys and worries and draw their own conclusions.
As Jack Bickham says, “Not only does moment-by-moment development make the scene seem most lifelike, it’s in a scene [with dialogue and action and reaction] where your reader gets most of his excitement. If you summarize, your reader will feel cheated – short-changed of what he reads for – without quite knowing why.”
It’s through characters interacting that a scene comes alive, so be sure to put us right there with the characters, in the middle of the tension and conflict, using “live” action and dialogue.
~ Also, no need to “tell” after you’ve “shown.”
“You’re late!” the general said. He didn’t like to be kept waiting.
Don’t explain after the fact. The words and actions should convey it.
“You’re late!” The general glared at him, hands on hips.
Other no-no examples of telling after showing:
In each case, take out the unnecessary sentence at the end:
She moped around the house and wouldn’t answer the phone. Even TV didn’t interest her. She was depressed.
“You crack me up,” she said, laughing hysterically. Joel could be so funny.
~ Use deep point of view.
Use close third-person point of view (or first person) to put us right into your protagonist’s or other main character’s head and skin. Show us her thoughts, reactions, and plans, his inner fears, hopes, resentments, anger, confusion, tenderness, relief, and joy. Don’t keep the reader at arm’s length by describing your hero or heroine from the outside, using omniscient or distant third-person point of view.
~ Evoke all five senses.
Showing means presenting the story to the reader using sensory information. The reader wants to feel what the character is feeling, experience their fear, joy, anger, determination, and pain, know their inner hopes and thoughts, and also see what’s happening, hear the different voices of the characters and other sounds, smell the smells, feel the tactile sensations, and taste the food and drink along with them. Telling, on the other hand, is summarizing the story for the reader in a way that skips past the life-giving sensory information and just relates the basic actions and events that occurred.
~ Use powerful, evocative phrasing.
As Jessica Morrell says, “adjectives tell and verbs show. For example, instead of “It was a shiny necklace,” trade the adjective shiny for a verb: the necklace glinted or the necklace sparkled, gleamed, flashed, glimmered, shimmered, twinkled.” Instead of “the miner was tired” (telling), say “the miner trudged home, head bowed,” or “the miner plodded along, his boots feeling like lead weights” or “the miner clomped over the gravel with heavy steps.” Or slogged or tramped or lumbered or dragged or shuffled (all showing).
Do a search for the word “was” – it’s often an indicator of telling instead of showing, as in “she was sad” or “he was angry.” Show their feelings instead by their thoughts, actions, words, tone, and body language.
~ Add in lots of tension and conflict.
Also, the bulk of the scene needs to be about a conflict of some kind between characters. No conflict = no scene. As Jack M. Bickham says, the conflict part of the scene “draws readers out through a moment-by-moment drama, extending the scene suspense with pleasurable agony.” If you have a scene where everyone is getting along great, revise it to add more tension.
EXAMPLES OF SHOWING, RATHER THAN TELLING:
Telling: Jake’s words spooked me.
Showing: The hair on my arms rose when I thought about Jake’s words.
Telling: George was disgusted and angry.
Showing: George pounded his fist on the table and swore at her, his lips curling. “Don’t ever do that again.”
Telling: Janie was bored at her Grandma’s.
Showing: Janie wandered from room to room, trying to find something to do. She wished it wasn’t raining outside. She looked through Grandma’s old books but nothing interested her.
RECAP – TIPS FOR SHOWING INSTEAD OF TELLING:
~ Show the characters’ actions as they’re occurring, in real time.
~ Use deep point of view to get right into the skin, head, and heart of your character.
~ Show us your viewpoint character’s reactions, feelings, emotions, and thoughts.
~ Add in sensory information. What are they seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, feeling?
~ Include lots of spirited, to-the-point dialogue.
~ Look for “was” or “were” and rephrase the sentence, replacing the adjective with a compelling verb or verbal phrase.
~ Cut way back on narrative description, exposition, and lengthy explanations of the character’s past or motivations.
~ Keep flashbacks short, and show them in real time, with action and dialogue.
~ Throw in plenty of conflict and tension.
~ Avoid telling after you’ve shown.
~ But “tell” to summarize – or just skip right past – the boring bits.
Of course, you can’t show everything, or your book would be way too long, and it would tire your readers out – or worse, end up boring them. You don’t want to show every move your characters make at down times, or when going from one place to the other. That’s where you summarize or “tell,” to get them to the next important scene quickly, without a lot of boring detail.
The main thing to keep in mind is to never tell the reader, after the fact (or have a character telling another character), about a critical scene. Instead, dramatize it in the here and now, with dialogue, action, and lots of sensory details to bring it to life for the reader.
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us
And Jodie’s editing of novels and critical reading of bestsellers