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How to Show, Not Tell

Updated: Jan 16, 2019

How to show, not tell: the first in what I'm certain will be a long series of posts on this topic.

I'd like to open today by saying that I am blown away by the feedback I've received for this blog, both here and on twitter. I have tons to say on the topics of writing and editing, but I never had such a great audience before. You guys are fantastic, and I hope that I can continue to be a great source of learning for all of you!

I mentioned old professor sayings in my last blog post, and how one of the things you probably heard while learning how to write is "show, don't tell." This is a simple enough concept, but I've seen many authors struggle with it in practice. I, myself, have even faced adversity, resorting to lazy techniques where I simply explain what I want my audience to see instead of painting the portrait for them.

When you tell, you're leaving the work of imagining up to your reader. Often times, telling creates a very vague idea of what should, maybe, be happening in the scene. If you tell your reader that the character was sad, or that the character was annoyed, or curious, you're leaving visualizing the body language and expressions up to the reader. It becomes impersonal, and can often take the reader outside of the work as they pause, trying to create an expression for the character on their own.

The question, then, becomes this: how do I show, rather than tell?

There are a number of ways to implement these techniques, so I've come up with a number of examples to demonstrate the differences in "telling" and "showing" styles. (I'll be using characters from my current WIP. I doubt they'll mind much).

Example 1 (telling): Annoyed, Eli got into his car and drove away.

In this example, I've told you that Eli is annoyed. I've told you what actions he implements following said annoyance. However, if you read that sentence, do you feel like you are in the scene? Have I painted a picture for you?

Let's try a variation.

Example 2 (showing): Eli huffed and ground his teeth, biting back a snarky retort. He climbed into his car, slamming the door behind him, and drove away.

While it's obvious that the 2nd example is a bit better, it still doesn't show you the emotion that could be embedded from start to finish. I've avoided outright saying that he's annoyed, but I still don't show the body language that carries him into the car (besides, of course, the slamming of the door). Let's further expand!

Example 3 (showing): Eli huffed and ground his teeth, biting back a snarky retort. Narrow eyes still trained on Lionidas, he climbed into the car and slammed the door. He chanced one last glance at his partner as he started the car, and he peeled out of the parking lot.

In Example 3, we are taken on the journey with Eli, his annoyance with Lionidas clear and concise. By showcasing the body language generally associated with the emotion, we also show a little part of the main character; he grinds his teeth, he glares, he slams doors, and he floors it. He is a bit reckless, so these traits follow him naturally.

We have seen this example from someone who is open in their negative emotions, and how those emotions manifest.

While Eli is reckless, he is also a very emotionally-closed-off person. Let's take a journey with him into some emotions he would be less keen on sharing.

Example 4 (telling): Eli didn't know how to express gratitude to Lionidas for making him coffee that morning, so he just said, "Thanks."

"It is no problem, Eli." Lio replied.

This one is a little trickier, because it feels like you're showing, to a certain extent. You're not telling the reader how Eli feels, after all, but how he doesn't feel. This can fool you into believing that you are showing, when, in fact, you're not; you're still telling.

Ask yourself the following question: is any emotion conveyed in this sentence?

The simple answer is no.

Once again, you have told your reader what's going on inside the character's mind, but you haven't painted a picture or given them details that could lead them, naturally, to the same conclusion. Instead of simply saying that Eli's not great with words, give him some body language and dialogue that conveys this all on its own.

Example 5 (showing): Lionidas handed Eli a cup of hot, fragrant coffee. Eli stared at it for a moment, then chanced a glance up. Lio wasn't even looking at him now, focusing instead on his case file, on the table between them.

Eli looked back at the mug in his hand. He made me coffee. He remembered. He swallowed, cheeks warming, and cleared his throat. "Uh, thanks."

Lio looked up, brows drawn down for a moment.

Idiot, Eli thought, should have just kept my mouth shut. Why did I have to make it weird?

Lio only smiled, though, and said, "It is no problem, Eli."

Here, we see a number of cogs turning in Eli's mind, as he awkwardly examines his situation and debates his own response. This is highly effective in 3rd-person close perspective, because we can even hear his thoughts and follow his process.

It can be just as effective, though, in 3rd-person omni. Check this out:

Example 6 (showing): Lionidas handed Eli a cup of hot, fragrant coffee. Eli stared at it for a moment, as Lio buried himself again in the case file on the table. Eli glanced over the table at his partner, jaw working, as words sprang to the tip of his tongue and quickly receded. Apparently, Lio had, in fact, been listening, when Eli voiced his coffee craving the day before. His cheeks warmed, a blush that went unnoticed by Lio.

Eli swallowed thickly and cleared his throat. "Uh, thanks."

Lio looked up, focus drawn back to the present by Eli's words. It took him a moment to realize what Eli was referring to, mug gripped tightly in his hands. Lio gave a small smile. "It is no problem, Eli."

From an omniscient point of view, we can highlight the contrast in focus between the two characters. Lio thought nothing of the gesture, as evidenced by his immediate regression into the case file, while Eli is completely taken with it. Without saying either of those things, you can paint the picture of the interaction and the emotions within said interaction, simply by describing body language and attentions. Eli takes several moments to appreciate what his partner has done, while Lio thinks nothing of it and simply resumes work, as he expects Eli to do. We can do all of this without ever having to peer inside the characters' minds.

I'll go ahead and create one more scenario, this time with a first-person perspective, observing emotions from the outside. (These are characters from an older WIP that I scrapped some years ago). You don't have to limit yourself just because of the POV.

Example 7 (telling): I saw Kyla begin to cry, sad and distressed about the disappearance of her teammate Bruce.

In this example, we are clearly assuming something about another character, which can take your reader out of the scene. More than that, though, it is lazy prose. Writing in first person can be problematic for that very reason: it can make us lazy.

Try this, instead: Example 8 (showing): When Kyla looked up at me, I could see tears brim her eyes. She gripped the phone to her ear, knuckles white. It could only be bad news. I didn't realize that Bruce's disappearance had impacted her like this; my strong, brave friend stood before me, lip quivering, as she finished her conversation, and she hung up, shaking her head. A tear spilled onto her cheek, then another, and she leaned against the wall, shoulders shaking as she cried.

In this example, you are held firmly in the point of view of the first person but given a clear picture of what they are seeing. In example 7, a lot of the information must be pulled from the point of view of the author, rather than the character. Again, you're telling your reader what to think and deduce, rather than following the train of thought that brings the reader there. In example 8, we see what brings the main character to the conclusion that the disappearance of a friend is causing Kyla distress.

In this fashion, you can employ the "show, don't tell" technique in your own writing. Pick a random passage from your work in progress. Have you simply stated actions, acknowledged the presence of emotions, and carried the scene thusly? If so, rework the interaction. See how you can employ body language instead of stating facts to relay feelings, thoughts, and expressions.

I've been ill over the weekend, but I am planning (moving forward) to put out blog posts every weekend, probably on Sundays. Next week I'll cover "bad words," things that you've learned never ever to say in prose but prooooobably can...if you do it well. I hope to see you all then! Have a great weekend!

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