how to up your show don't tell game

3 Tips for Improving Show, Don’t Tell

3 tips for improving show don't tellWhen looking for a new book to read, there are a couple quick tests I do to determine whether it seems like I can trust the author to know what they’re doing all book long. The first and most important of these tests usually requires just a quick glance across the first page to see whether the author demonstrates a grasp of “show, don’t tell.”

Show, don’t tell is one of the most basic principles of narrative fiction. Defined in a nutshell, it is the technique that allows readers to experience the events of the story, rather than observing them. Showing readers what’s happening involves active verbs that evoke all the senses. Showing invites readers to inhabit the context of the story with the subtext of their own imaginations.

Showing dramatizes.

This is in contrast to telling readers what happened. Telling spells things out as simply as possible. It doesn’t evoke a character’s joy. It just tells readers “she was happy.”

Telling summarizes.

Both showing and telling are equally viable and important fictional techniques. But the weight of a polished narrative should rest more heavily on showing than telling.

“The art of showing” is really “the art of narrative writing.” As such, it’s a technique all writers are constantly learning and refining. In the last year or so, I’ve learned some things about my own use of this technique that have helped me take dramatizing vs. summarizing to a better level in my own writing. That’s why, today, I want to talk about three ways you can up your “show, don’t tell” game.

What Show, Don’t Tell Really Means

First, a crash course.

“Show, don’t tell” is often one of the first critiques a fiction writer receives. Usually, the command is more than a little confusing. What does “show, don’t tell” even mean? You look at the passage your beta reader circled and you try to understand what’s wrong with the way you phrased it and how you could possibly have written it any other way.

Learning to recognize telling and differentiate it from showing can be a lengthy and sometimes less-than-intuitive process. I think many of us remember the moment when we suddenly got it and started recognizing telling in our writing and understanding how to rewrite it into more evocative showing.

Basically, the difference between showing and telling can be seen in the following:

Danny slogged through the tangled grass. Christopher marched along behind him, rifle in both hands, head up, eyes alert, just like his papa. Two or three times, Danny stopped to show him the buffalo tracks and the broken foliage the bull had torn up after his first shot.

vs.

The father and son were hunting a buffalo.

Both convey the same information. In fact, the second “telling” paragraph, conveys it much more efficiently (and therefore, would be appropriate in certain places in a story, for certain stylistic reasons). The second paragraph does not, however, show us what is happening. It does nothing to personify either the characters or the setting.

There are varied levels of showing. Part of the art of learning to write solid narrative is learning to consciously weave various degrees of dramatization into the story. Full-on showing at every juncture would drown most stories in unnecessary details (not to mention geysering their word counts). You will rarely, if ever, need to spell out every flinch of muscle involved in your character’s rising from a chair. There will even be times when your best option is to summarize whole swathes of action into a sentence or two.

But for the most part, all important events, actions, and feelings should be shown—dramatized. You want to paint word pictures for your readers, so they can experience the story on a sensory level.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is dialogue. Dialogue is the purest form of showing. It gives readers a real-time accounting of what the character is hearing, word for word.

You can clearly see the difference in showing and telling in these examples:

The screen door blurred her features. “You’re back so soon?”

“We found the buffalo.” He crossed the yard. “A few miles upriver. Big one. Nearly took Quinn down.”

She pushed through the door onto the porch. “He’s all right? What happened?”

“Nothing much.” He tried to wave it off. “He missed a couple shots.”

She raised her eyebrows. “That’s unusual for him, isn’t it?”

“Everybody has an off day.”

vs.

He told her about the buffalo.

For more on the basics of show, don’t tell, see these posts:

>>Showing and Telling: The Quick and Easy Way to Tell the Difference

>>Are Your Verbs Showing or Telling?

>>Telling Important Scenes, Instead of Showing

3 Tips to Get Even Better at Show, Don’t Tell

Once dramatizing your story’s action has become second nature, you will have mastered the most important aspects of show, don’t tell. Chances are you’re now writing the kind of narrative that would pass a reader’s first-scan test of your book. But, as I said, learning to master show, don’t tell is largely the art of mastering writing itself. Always room for improvement!

Today, I want to talk about three specific ways to look for places in your story where you might be able to change out sneaky telling for more powerful showing.

1. Never Name an Emotion

This “rule” is total hyperbole. Of course it’s fine, in certain contexts , to say, “everyone was happy” or “a flinch of sadness creased his face.”

But I constantly repeat this little phrase—“never name an emotion“—as my first line of defense against slipping into what is, perhaps, the easiest of all tells.

Emotion can be a difficult thing to describe, much less evoke. We can show characters falling in love, holding hands, laughing, kissing—but can we be sure readers know they’re happy? Or what if they’re going through all these motions, but it’s just on the surface and, really, they’re extremely unhappy? It’s so much easier to just name the emotion.

And this holds true for more than just emotions. You can also add the following slogans to your repertoire:

  • Never name a sense (e.g., “she felt cold”; “he saw the truck”; “she smelled the coffee”; “it tasted sweet”; “he heard the explosion”).

or

  • Never name an action (e.g., “she drove the car”; “he got dressed”).

Obviously, these are extreme guidelines. (In fact, “show, don’t tell” is itself an extreme statement, since there will be moments in every single scene where telling is the best choice. We’d be better off rephrasing the rule to “show before you tell.”)

But because telling is so much easier and, often, so much more natural than showing, it’s good to keep these phrases running through your head. That way, whenever you find yourself typing, “she was happy,” you’ll be more likely to stop and reexamine your choices. When you do, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Is naming the emotion/sense/action really the best choice for this scene?

She was happy.

2. Could you rephrase with a stronger, less obvious verb?

She effervesced.

3. Would you get more mileage out of an action if you dramatized it?

She picked up the train of her gown and twirled around, dancing through the empty garden.

4. Instead of mentioning a sensory experience, could you describe what the character is sensing?

The wet smell of earth, still cool from the night, filled her throat, and she closed her eyes and breathed.

5. Can you imply the character’s emotion through the context—either supportively or ironically?

He smiled at her, and she smiled back.

or

He smiled at her, and she forced herself to smile back.

2. Choose Illustrative Actions

Art of Memoir Mary KarrI write novels; I don’t write memoirs (so far, anyway). But I still gleaned a ton from Mary Karr’s dead-on book The Art of Memoir. The whole book is a masterclass in vigorous vulnerability and integrity, but one of the best object lessons I took away was how I, as a novelist, could apply a memoirist’s rigorous approach to show, don’t tell.

Here’s a new exercise, inspired by Karr, that I now use all the time:

Imagine for a moment you’re not writing fiction. Instead of being a novelist, you’re now a memoirist, writing about real events from your own life. Pick something in your life that still causes you high emotion.

For the sake of illustration, let’s say you’re going to write about how an older girl at school bullied you mercilessly. You were her victim; she was clearly the antagonist in the scene; and you want your readers to understand this.

But here comes the tricky part. You are not allowed to offer any commentary on your relationship with this bully: how she made you feel back then or how her effect upon you still clangs through your life today. You are not allowed to tell readers she was the inexcusable abuser of an innocent child.

You are only allowed to show readers what happened. Nothing more, nothing less. You can’t tell us she was mean to you, but you can show us when she pulled your hair. You can’t tell us you think she was probably the victim of abuse in her own family, but you can show us that moment when you found her crying in the stairwell. You can’t tell us she scared you out of her mind, but you can show us that day you threw up before going to school.

Even just imagining these scenarios, you can see how much more power there is in the showing than the telling.

Now, apply this to your fiction. This is arguably a little trickier, since now you’re not remembering real details, but creating scenarios that will evoke your characters’ emotions. Doing so will not only enable you to create a stronger scene and a more vivid reading experience, it will also force you to dig deep for story events that properly align with your character’s emotions and motivations at every turn.

Remember: you’re not allowed to tell readers your character is conflicted in her love life. You have to show them why. You’re not allowed to tell readers your character is scared. You have to make them feel the fear too.

In short, you’re not allowed to slant your scenes. You can’t massage the commentary to force readers to see it how you see it. You have to make them see it all for themselves.

3. Don’t Explain the Context

Here’s the awesome thing about good showing: if you’re doing it right, you don’t ever have to hold readers’ hands by telling them.

Still, “reinforcement telling” is an easy crutch to hang onto. I know because I do it all the time.

I’ll do my best to write an evocative scene showing readers all the important actions, senses, and especially emotions. And… then I’ll start doubting myself and throw in a paragraph or two explaining the character’s mental process in the midst of it all.

For example, here’s a recent chunk I’ve cut from my WIP Dreambreaker during my first editing pass:

Nothing here was simple—not her uncle’s involvement, not her relationship with her Gifted, and certainly not her obligations to her crown and her country, which demanded another set of obligations entirely to Rivalé. If she’d been a simpler woman, perhaps she could have thrown all that over. But she wasn’t. That woman had been born and had died all within the few hours that ended the last war. Instead, she chased her demons back inside their dungeon and closed the door.

I really liked this paragraph, describing my female lead’s interiority in a complicated scene. But… I didn’t need it. I chopped it and immediately could feel that the scene breathed better without it. Thanks to recent beta reader (thank you, Kate Flournoy!), I’m finally starting to consistently recognize where I’m doing this in my fiction.

But, you may be thinking, what if I really do need to explain my character’s mental process?

Fair question. In fact, that question is one of the reasons this final pitfall is so easy to fall into and so hard to spot. After all, if you’re writing a deep POV, every single word is more or less in your character’s head. Readers want to be inside his head. They want to know what he’s thinking and feeling. And sometimes they’re even going to want it spelled out for them.

So here are a couple fast questions I’ve developed to help me gut-check when an introspective paragraph is worthy of inclusive—and when it’s just getting in the way by explaining the scene’s otherwise strong context.

Q1: Is this information evident from the context? Would readers understand this emotion or motive without the explanation?

Q2: Could I delete this telling explanation from the narrative and instead create context within the scene that shows it?

Q3: Could I shorten this internal monologue? (Look for spaces in the narrative where you find your natural reading pace taking a “breath.” Upon re-reading, if I find myself a little surprised that the narrative is going on, instead getting back to the action, I know I’ve gone on one sentence too long.)

Now a caveat: it’s perfectly fine to write out all this telling stuff—especially the parts where you’re working through your characters’ emotions—in the first draft. Get it all out there on paper if you need to. But think about it as if you’re explaining it to yourself. Once you’ve got it out of your system, go back and ruthlessly delete useless tellings. Readers don’t need them nearly as much as we do.

***

The better you get at refining show, don’t tell, the better your writing will grow on every single page. Use these tips to gut-check your progress and clear away any useless clutter getting in between your readers and your story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What has been your greatest challenge with show, don’t tell? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I get lots of posts from authors and most are benign stuff. This was an in-depth post and I enjoyed every minute of it. This is a keeper. I always love your posts.

  2. Michael Saltar says:

    Another trick is to treat your writing the way we screenwriters must: only write what the audience can see and hear. Force yourself to convey inner thoughts through what appears on the screen. Oh yeah, and then avoid exposition in dialogue at all costs!

  3. This is perhaps one of the best explanations of “Show, Don’t tell” that I’ve seen. Really hope that new writers are able to read this first before exploring further.

  4. Great post and some great down to earth examples and self questioning. Thank you. BTW I’m doing a ping back from my site.

  5. This is the most detailed but simplistic description on showing I have read. Thank you.

  6. Abigail Welborn says:

    Thanks for this great advice! Extremely practical.

  7. Thanks for explaining “show, don’t tell” so succinctly.

  8. I’m a mystery writer with 3 published books under my belt. I have to be careful and parse out reading “writer craft” articles because of time. But I have to say, this article was worth the time and I’ve bookmarked it for future reference. I’m considering your book, too. Good job!

  9. Dan Hoyle says:

    Thank you very much. Learned a lot from this Podcast. Take care.

  10. Love this article. I hate it when we’re told don’t tell, don’t tell without acknowledging that sometimes telling is the better choice or that your book might end up 400 pages long if you only tell. Showing is so much harder and does so much more for the story, but it’s true we need both.

  11. I’ve known about “show don’t tell” for a long time but I still find it confusing sometimes, and often difficult to recognize. Thank you for clarifying! And it’s good to know that both are viable when used correctly.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.