I’ve emerged from Motherhood Exile and have decided to just pick up where I left off. My last post dealt with showing vs. telling. It defined each technique and explained why telling is usually not the best way to go and why showing is to be preferred. Now we’re going to move on to the application part of this topic: finding those pesky telling parts and showing them instead.
How Do I Identify Telling in my Own Writing?
1. Look for emotional words: angry, sad, horrified, jealous. In most cases, when these words are written out, they’ve been used to tell the reader how a character feels instead of showing the emotion.
2. Be conscious of places where something has been explained. In my writing, this is almost always a short sentence that gives a concise summary. Looking at your writing in this way takes practice; when Angela and I crit each others’ work, we’re always reminding each other to RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain)—a term we shamelessly stole from Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It may take time, but when you edit with this in mind, you start to recognize these places in your writing.
3. Check longer narrative passages to see if something is being told rather than shown. This usually occurs when an author is explaining a unique element that the reader may be unfamiliar with (such as in sci-fi or fantasy), or when giving historical information that affects the current story.
How Do I Show Instead of Tell?
1. Think of ways to get your information across through the context of the current story. Instead of stopping to explain that a character has issues with her father, show their dysfunction over breakfast or a heated phone call. This will show the reader that the two characters don’t get along without you having to say it and without interrupting the flow of the story.
2. Use sensory details to draw the reader in. Example:
Nerien ran down the hall, his feet stinging as they struck the cold stone floor. In the dark, he misjudged the stairway and jammed his toes into the bottom step. Glass shattered in the darkness above. He barely heard it over Ma, screaming for him now. He hurtled out of the stairway and into her room.
In this example, I could have simply said that he ran upstairs. But I wanted the reader to be sucked in, to feel his fear and take the journey with him. Note the details that involve the reader’s senses: the cold floor, jamming his toes into the step, shattering glass, screaming. Whenever possible, use sensory descriptors to make the scene come alive for the reader.
3. Use specific words that lend themselves to the exact mood you’re trying to set. In the above example, glass didn’t break, it shattered; Nerien didn’t enter the room, he hurtled into it; his feet didn’t hurt, they stung.
4. Use comparisons that are specific to the character. In the previous post, I used an example of Dara on the bridge; in that example, the comparison of the trapped branch parallels Dara’s feeling of being trapped and choking. The bridge and river are recognizable elements in Dara’s life, specific to her. Find the comparisons that are specific to your character and they’ll be believable to the reader.
When Is Telling the Right Choice?
There are times when telling is appropriate, like when you simply want to state something without going into great detail—something that maybe needs to be said but isn’t of monumental importance to the story. Telling can also be used for effect: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. And of course, if your character’s voice calls for short, snappy, telling sentences, then by all means, tell away. Remember that show-don’t-tell is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. If you want to tell instead, then go for it. Just make sure you’ve got a reason for doing it.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.