5 Steps to Show Not Tell
As an author, and a reader, you’ve probably heard the tenant “show not tell” more than once. It’s one of the only tenants of writing, besides proper grammar, that I truly am a steadfast believer in. I believe that by following this tenant you make flat characters round, and you pull your reader deep into your story. I’ve never been a fan of flowery and ostentatious writing, where the author appears to be more interested in letting you know they have a dictionary and know how to use it than in welcoming you into the world inside their mind. Or even worse, they don’t believe you have an imagination and can infere everything, so they tell you everything, down to the exact type of ravioli they ordered when it’s completely irrelevant. So what is showing versus telling? Essentially, it brings your story to life. Showing adds depth and emotion to a story like telling cannot, and there are several tell-tale signs you’re telling and not showing. As with all advice, this should be taken in moderation and applied in a way that doesn’t self-mutilate your writing. All advice on writing (besides grammar, of course) should be applied in a way that you are comfortable with and makes your writing better–more you. You shouldn’t want to write like anyone but who you are.
1. The Authors Cop-Out: (Insert Dramatic Music Here) The Simile (also, the cliched metaphor). If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know how much I despise a simile. The cliche wrapped up in a whole lot of I couldn’t think of anything better to say. Similes lack imagination, and best of all, if you apply them in a literal sense, they make no sense at all. By removing these, you can empower your writing to have more depth, and be far more poetic:
BEFORE: “My life was suddenly spiraling out of control like a tornado had run me over with pain.”
AFTER:“My life was spiraling out of control. The lies and deception I created dragged me with violent precision towards their epicenter. I knew now I was the only one to blame for the pain I caused.
The before has several issues, one of which we will address in number two, below, but the main issue is the simile. “Like a tornado”, well, I’m pretty sure if you were run over by a tornando, you’d be dead. That would probably be painful, but then again, you’d be dead. It’s a bit of an over exaggeration, it feels cheap and, you nailed it, flat.
2. The Adverb: The little word that means, well, so very little with it’s -ly tagged at the back. When you use a word with -ly at the end, you’re definitely telling and now showing. I will literally hunt down all words ending in -ly in my novels and remove them. Why? They’re passive, flat and mean nothing to your reader. Let’s look at an example:
BEFORE: “It’s okay,” she said, emphatically.
AFTER: “It’s okay,” she said, her voice soft as she reached forward and squeezed my shoulder. Her eyes fell from mine, as if she couldn’t stand to look at me, and I watched her lips twitch at their edges, falling down in soft creases.
The before means nothing. It’s also a mouth full: em-pa-tha-tic-al-ly. How does one say something emphatically? You don’t–because no one knows what you mean. In the second version you see exactly what the woman is doing to show she’s empathetic; her voice has softened, she makes a reassuring gesture and her eyes fall as she frowns. It instills something different. It makes you feel that there’s something dire in this situation that this woman feels bad that she can’t control. Before, did you feel that?
3. Prose is for Poems: Dialogue is a great way to show a story. If you have great levels of description and inner monologue, you risk losing your reader. The thing is, while all that flowery stuff sounds nice, does any one really think like that? If you’re being held at gun point, are you really going to observe the shape of the room? I doubt it. You’re going to hear your blood rushing in your ears, notice the way the room is tightening around you–concentrate on the feel of the cold metal pressing against your temple. In all honesty, I don’t care if you had a chocolate cookie if it’s not something that adds to the story; however, if it’s a stale one, the only thing left in the house to eat–you’re showing me something. You’re showing me the character is so wrapped up in what’s going on they haven’t bothered to shop, and they don’t care how the cookie tastes any more.
4. The “Look” “Felt” Conundrum: Oh, no he didn’t! He totally didn’t just look at you in that condescending way! He totally didn’t make you feel pissed off! This follows along the lines of the adverb. It means very little to “look condensing” or to feel “totally pissed.”
BEFORE: I walked into the room, and Adam’s eyes locked on mine. His condensing gaze did nothing to cool me off. I was pissed, and he didn’t care.
AFTER: I walked into the room, and Adam’s eyes locked on mine. His lips tipped up at their edges as he leaned back in the chair, and I felt my hands go into fists at my side. He had no right to look at me like that when he’d done so much wrong. The room was too hot and too small for the both of us to be in it.
He’s an ass. We can tell by the way his posture displays him, and she’s pissed; her posture also shows that. We go even farther here by describing the internal changes that are often forgotten when we’re telling. When you’re angry you have a physical response. Perhaps, your body goes hot or cold, and a film of sweat develops on your brow. One thing to keep in mind here is to not go too overboard, especially with the posture. If you have someone who is habitually doing something you’re going to need to explain why. “I bit my lip; it was a nervous habit I just couldn’t seem to break.” It’s always good to mix things up too, and save the more extreme body reactions for the more extreme; the sutler ones for the mundane.
5. Talk It Out, Baby: If you know me, you know that I am a dialogue heavy writer. I’m not saying this is right for everyone, and it needs to be balanced with description and emotion, because dialogue can be just as flat as overly describing something. You don’t want to write a script, after all! Dialogue does have immense power to add depth to an inner monologue, and allow us to understand a character even better, along with the relationships they have with those around them. In the example below you feel so much more. The house takes on a sinister feeling, and lastly, the words show determination. By saying something out loud you give the same words more power and bravery.
BEFORE: I never thought I would return to this place, where so many bad things happened–where I faced so many issues. I ran away from them then, but now I wasn’t running any more.
AFTER: I inhaled, stepping into the house I grew up in and my body froze. Holly placed her hand on the small of my back and my skin prickled over my arms.
“You okay?” Holly asked, cocking her head at me.
I looked around the room swallowing. “It’s just hard, you know? So many bad things happened here.” I closed my eyes, inhaling again before locking eyes on her. “I’m not running anymore, though. I’m going to do this.”
Besides the Longman Handbook for Grammar, my other greatest reference is The Emotion Thesaurus. It helps me to think of alternative ways to add depth to emotions. Another great reference, specifically relating to external reactions is The Definitive Book of Body Language. Above all, observe people, see their mannerisms, and observe yourself, what are your natural reactions to things that are happening; put yourself in your characters shoes. How do you feel? Are you flushed, is your chest tightening? Write it, revise it and above all else, keep your passion and balance this advice with who you are as a writer.