- guide; tips; how tos; -

how to show, not tell

Books are like teleport crystals, and that is one of the biggest reasons why people like to read. They want an outlet to another world, to experience another story. They are looking for something immersive. They don’t want to be told the plot of the story; they want to live the story.

Take a look at the sentence – He was angry.

So, what’s wrong with this sentence? Well, this sentence doesn’t paint much of a picture and it fails to make me feel anything as a reader. And that is the core problem with writing which relies too much on telling.

Now think about a favorite book, and why it is a favorite. I bet one of the reasons is because you could easily relate to the book, because you developed a certain bond with the characters, or because you felt a deep connection with the story. Your readers won’t resonate with your story if it is just plain telling. It has to drip with emotions, it has to make them feel something, it has to make them visualize the whole story.

Andrew Stanton, Pixar writer and director, in his TED talk -the clues to a great story, said, “Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four. Give them two plus two.”

He further adds, “…the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they are doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you are making them work for their meal.”

Here are some ways to help you project a stronger “showing” in your writing:

#1 GET RID OF SENSORY WORDS:

Words like thinks, feels, hears, smells, imagines, wants, etc. Phrases like these are commonly referred to as “telling” words, and are also called “filters.” These draw the readers out of the story and breaks the momentum. Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, says, “Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the readers to know them. Instead of a characters wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.”

For example –

Telling: I heard footsteps behind me. I felt a chill of unease. It was terrifying.

Showing: I heard the crunch of dry leaves, and soft foot falls shuffling behind me in the dark alley. Resisting the urge to turn around, I walked faster towards the exit. A cool breeze stirred my hair, and as the sound of approaching footsteps reached my ears, a shudder weaved its way down my body.

#2 DON’T TELL EMOTIONS:

Emotions are meant to be felt. So, if your characters are feeling it, then you want your readers to feel it too. Each and every emotion has the capability to make an impact, no matter how unfamiliar the reader is with that emotion. Whether it be anger, frustration, guilt, love, etc. Refrain from using emotion-explaining words like – happy, sad, angry, excited, giddy, tired, etc.

Let’s take the very first example –

Telling: He was angry,

Showing: He slammed his fists on the table, causing all the dishes to rattle. He clenched his tense jaw to the point of snapping, and fisted his trembling hands, a vein sticking out on his forehead.

#3 USE EXPRESSIONS, BODY LANGUAGE AND DIALOGUE:

Readers like to think. They like to read and find the solution for themselves. One of the best ways of showing is to describe a person’s body language, because as the phrase goes – “Actions speak more than words.” So, don’t just state the emotion, make the characters do the emotion, and let the readers infer it. You need to have faith in your readers, that they can put two and two together.

In her writing guide – Understanding Show, don’t tell – Janice Hardy says, “A common rule of thumb: as long as it feels like the character is thinking it, you’re usually okay. But as soon as it sounds like the author butting in to explain things, you’ve probably fallen into telling.”

For example –

Telling: He was tired.

Showing: His eyes were bloodshot, and his shoulders hunched. He made his way towards the door, with dragging footsteps, which was so unlike his usual confident strides.

Sometimes, dialogues can go a long way to render a certain emotion as well. Like in the above example – “He was tired,” can also be conveyed by having another character say, “Didn’t you get any sleep? You look dreadful and shot.”

#4 PROVIDE SENSORY EVIDENCES:

Your characters are paper, and so is your world. But it your job to make the story come alive, so that it can jump out of paper and squeeze its way into the reader’s mind and become a living breathing entity. Unique feeling and sensory details, makes your story three-dimensional and more memorable.

For example –

Take a look at the opening scene of “The Secret Garden” by Frances Burnett –

“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too. She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.”

Here, the author tells the reader that Mary was a disagreeable-looking child, but that is immediately supported by visual evidence – “little thin face”, “little thin body”, “thin light hair”, “sour expression” and yellow face. These evidences allow the reader to visualize Mary in their minds, and thus help her come alive.

“Showing” is important for your story. But too much showing can weaken the pace. It is important to show and include vivid details which helps the reader see, but too much details can cause the reader to lose interest. Here is a wonderful example provided by Shailin on a Reedsy blog post –

Too much showing: The statue felt rough, its aged façade caked with dust and grime as I weighed it in my hand, observing its jagged curves and Fanta-colored hue.

Just the right amount: It was heavier than it looked. Some of the orange facade crumbled in my hand as I picked it up.

But we must keep in mind that good novels are not completely showing. They are actually a blend of telling and showing. If the whole story was to be just showing, then every novel would be ridiculously lengthy and stuffed with unnecessary details. Telling is actually useful when conveying the passage of time, or just present important information to the reader, without blurring the main focus, or maybe setting up the surroundings.

Try watching this video for examples and insight into this aspect of writing. It served as a huge inspiration for this post.

A person’s imagination is stronger than anything that a movie can produce, and so most of the times, if not all the times, books are better than movies, because they can capture emotions, feelings, expressions, and reality in a way that no camera can. And so, your story can do the same too, if you can learn the art of perfectly blending showing and telling. So, keep on showing and telling. I wish you the very best of luck for your book!

40 thoughts on “how to show, not tell

  1. Read this, guys! It covers everything 😍.
    Thanks for sharing, lah! 😁
    You’re probably one of the best people to go to for show not tell advice…and I’m saying this coz I’ve sent u way too many of my write ups for review!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. This is some really good advice.
    I highly recommend that you give the book On Writing : A Memoir of The Craft by Stephen King a read. It is a wonderful book that all aspiring authors should read.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Oof! Saving this. And I never save posts. Dude, this post will help me so so much!!! It’s good I’m your friend. I can personally take novel writing classes from you, and for free! But dam! This is super helpful!!! Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ashmita (is it OK if I call you that?) this advice was so spot on and quite constructive criticism to writers. Thanks for sharing this, it helps a lot!
    ~Maha

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is great advice for real. It’s so true, the reader ls like to feel it themselves, not just see it on the page.
    Every writer should read this!
    Amazing post!! Can I reblog this?

    Liked by 2 people

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