by Jodie Renner, editor & author
"SHOW, DON’T TELL" -- This phrase has been repeated to the point where you might feel it's hackneyed and you can dismiss it--NOT! No matter how many times you've heard it, this concept is still critical to creating fresh fiction that captivates readers and garners great reviews. It's also one of the most difficult concepts for new fiction writers to grasp, along with deep point of view. (The two concepts are inextricably entwined.) Understanding and mastering these two interrelated concepts will make a huge difference in the quality of your stories by engaging readers emotionally and keeping them turning the pages.Showing instead of telling your story brings your characters and scenes to life. Using this technique will suck your reader into your story world and right inside your protagonist, experiencing her fear along with her, feeling the sweat on her brow and her adrenaline racing, pulse quickening right along with hers, muscles tensed, ready to leap into action.
~ Don’t tell us what happened – show us what happened.
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.
Bestselling author 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.”
~ Cut back on narration, description, and exposition.
Effective, engaging storytelling is definitely not about relating the events after the fact or interpreting for the readers. Keep the story moving and the characters interacting. The author stepping in to describe or explain things to the readers jolts us away from the characters and their plight and can be distracting, boring, and irritating for readers.
~ 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 being subjected to photo after photo, or even videos, about 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 the late, great Jack Bickham said, “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, dialogue, sensory details, thoughts, and emotions.
~ Use deep point of view.
Avoid omniscient point of view, which is distracting and distancing. Use close third-person (or first-person) POV 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.
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. Tension and conflict are what drive fiction forward. As Jack M. Bickham said, 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.
~ Also, no need to “tell” after you’ve “shown.”
Don’t explain after the fact. The words and actions should convey what you're trying to show.
“You’re late!” the general said. He didn’t like to be kept waiting.
“You’re late!” The general glared at him, hands on hips.
Other no-no examples of telling after showing:
In each case below, 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.
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.
~ 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.
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.
And check out these articles on Point of View on this blog: