One of my favorite writing coaches is here with us to dish some helpful advice on Show and Tell. Please welcome Janice Hardy and read on…
Show, don’t tell, is drilled into every writer’s head, and most of us have been frustrated over it. In my early writing days, I spent months figuring out what it meant—and more importantly—how to find ‘told prose’ in my work.
Since then it’s been easier to show and not tell, and help other writers find their own tells. Today, let’s look at three common ways writers tell and how to edit those areas to show.
Tell #1: Explaining the motives of the characters
Wanting to know why characters act the way they do is a compelling reason for readers to keep reading, and explaining those motives robs them of the chance to figure it out themselves. It also steals the mystery from the scene and lessens the tension, because when readers know the answer, there’s little worry about.
Many of these motivational tells involve explaining backstory or history, telling readers why a particular character is acting in a certain way. They explain a law of the land, or a past trauma, or a character’s habit. “This character is doing this thing because of this reason.” These tells happen because it’s easier to explain than to slip details into the background that feel natural to the scene.
The most common motivational tell is minor, but it’s my favorite example:
She reached over to pick up the book.
Seems perfectly fine, right? Countless sentences just like this are written every day, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. However, it explains the motive for why the character reached over. She did it to pick up the book. But notice we don’t actually see her pick up the book. There’s no action shown aside from her reaching over.
For these little “to verb” tells, simply changing to to and fixes most of them.
She reached over and picked up the book.
Now it’s shown. This one-word edit will fix many tells, but for some you’ll need to rewrite a bit. For example:
Lila knew she had to watch John carefully because he’d stolen her project notes last month and taken all the credit for her idea.
To fix, think about how someone with that motive would act or think, and show that instead.
John walked into her office. “Got a minute?”
Lila frowned and hid her notes with a folder. Not this time, buster. “What do you want?”
Readers don’t yet know why Lila is hiding her notes, but it’s clear she has an issue with John, and will keep reading to see why.
Some red flag words to search for if you think you have some motivational tells in your writing: “to verb” phrases, because, and knew.
Tell #2: Explaining the emotions behind the actions
Being told someone “felt something” is different from seeing the outward signs of that emotion. These tells slip in because it’s often easier to say “She was heartbroken” than to dive deep into the emotions of the character. For example:
Shayla felt the pain of the betrayal deep in her chest. She sobbed in misery.
Do we see the misery? The heartbreak? No. We’re told she feels it and why she’s crying. But when we think about how someone who is heartbroken might act and think, we get:
It was over. Truly over. Shayla sank to the ground and sobbed.
You can choose to show as much or as little emotion as needed for the scene, but beware—trying to show too much risks writing a melodramatic breakdown. Such as:
It was over. Truly over. How could he just leave her like this? Shayla gasped, holding back the tears blurring her vision. Her chest tightened. This wasn’t happening to her, not to her. She sank to the floor, wrapped her shaking arms around her knees, and sobbed.
Plenty of emotion there, but perhaps a bit too over the top. Remember—a little goes a long way.
Some red flag words to search for if you think you have some emotional tells in your writing: “in emotion” or “with emotion” phrases, and felt.
Tell #3: Explaining the subtext in the behaviors
Subtext is a powerful tool that builds tension and piques reader curiosity because nothing is spelled out. Readers get to decide what the truth is by observing the characters, but when everything is explained, the scene loses that mystery. For example:
Bob wanted to ask Jane to run away with him, and if she said yes, they could leave before Sally got back. “It’s not that far to Aberdeen if you wanted to go. Couple days walk, maybe.”
Jane shrugged, not wanting to look too eager. “That road is crawling with zombies. We’d never make it.”
“Not the skybridge.”
Maybe, but just the two of them alone? How would they survive without his survival-savvy wife? “I don’t know if it’s worth the risk.”
There’s little left to wonder about here. Jane shows some interest, but only with the explanations. But take out the explanations…
Bob brushed the dead leaves off the hood of the car. If she agreed, they could leave before Sally returned. “It’s not that far to Aberdeen. Couple days walk, maybe.”
Jane smiled, just a little, then shrugged. “That road is crawling with zombies, though.”
“Not the skybridge. We could make it.”
She stared wistfully down the road, and he thought she might say what a great idea it was. “Bad place to get stuck if we’re wrong. Will Sally be back soon?”
“She said not to wait up.”
A lousy joke, but Jane giggled. His heart leapt, but she glanced away, face flushed. She scanned the treeline again. “It’s just too dangerous. We’re not the killing machines she is, remember?”
We can guess Jane has some affection for Bob, but it’s easy to see how Bob (and readers) could be unsure about her feelings. It’s also uncertain what she means by dangerous—the zombies, Sally, or being on their own.
No red flag words for subtext tells, but check the internalization and see if you’re giving away what the dialogue and actions and trying to convey. Would the scene be more interesting if less was said?
Show, don’t tell can make a writer want to scream, but once you realize what told prose looks like, it’s easy to rewrite it to show. And after you train yourself to spot it, you start avoid it naturally.
If you’d like more examples and a deeper discussion of show, don’t tell, I suggest my book Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It).
Have you struggled with show, don’t tell? How did you figure it out?
When she’s not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.