It has become almost a cliché – the old mantra “Show, not tell” and often you will hear it when receiving a critique. But what, you may ask, does it actually mean? Is the critiquer offering valid advice, or are they just trying to appear sophisticated and smug? And is it in fact a valid point – do you really need to show, not tell? What does it do for the story.
Is it important?
Well, to be honest – no. Whether you show instead of telling, will not determine whether you become a popular author or not. MANY best-selling authors do not show, they just tell. Lesley Pearse, Danielle Steele, and my mother's favourite, MC Beaton all engage in a manner of story telling that is just that, TELLing. Action fiction like Matthew Reilly is also heavy on the Tell. It has a place – and that place is generally quick and easy reads that are fast-paced and mostly forgettable. When you consider how many books each of these authors has produced, you realise that they are, literally, churning the stories out.
So why do it?
By showing, you turn your book from a forgettable, if enjoyable, read into an experience. One that the reader feels along with the characters, one that may well linger in their mind and stick with them for a considerable time. It brings the characters more fully too life – establishing them as real people instead of just characters.
And it also really does increase your word count.
Telling is passive, like having the story read to you at bedtime. The reader is clearly divided from the main characters, almost as though they were watching them from afar or on television.Showing is active, as though the story is actually happening around the reader. It is more immediate, more involving.
Adverbs are a prime example of Tell in story-telling. They are clunky and should be - if not eliminated, than at least minimised. In many cases, a more powerful verb exists:
Tell: Aurelia ran quickly away from the predator.
Show: Aurelia bounded away from the predator.
It creates a more visceral immediacy.
One of the easiest ways to show instead of telling is to describe how the character feels, rather than telling the author. There are many ways to do it - you can use body language and physiological changes.
For example: how do you know when you are feeling sad? What physical symptoms do you experience? What goes on inside your head?
Remember, there are two ways to describe emotion: one as how it feels and the other as how it is perceived on another. When describing emotion in your story, the point-of-view character should feel their own emotions (a lump in the throat, a quivering in the chest etc) but read it in the body language of others (a frown, slumped shoulders).
Be careful not to overdo this! One sentence of another's body languge should be sufficient in most cases. Also, take care that characters do not repeat the same action too many times - I had one character "scowl" three times within two pages. Mix up the descriptions a bit!If you are uncomfortable with writing emotions, try watching some television - particularly dramas and soap operas. Study the body language of the actors - they cannot Tell you how they are feeling - they must Show you.
Detail the world around the characters - it's not just a banister, it's a worn wooden banister, it's not just a car, it's a bright red sportscar. Be aware, though, that the descriptions should be limited by the character's perceptions: what is a bright red sportscar to one person might be an ardent red jaguar to another. What is a little brown bird to one person might be a song sparrow to another.
There is a danger in giving too much detail, we do not want screes of description about irrelevant objects - these slow the prose and distract or bore the reader.Show Description in the Characters Interactions with the Environment
No bulk dump of descriptive text when the character enters a new room, please! Instead, have the character interact with it - run their hand along the banister, cast their eyes on the paintings, stumble over the footstool left in the middle of the floor.
Use All Five Senses
Visual cues are the easiest - but don't forget sound, smell, taste and feel!
Dialogue is a great way to show emotion and also can be used (sparingly and carefully) as a means of transfering information to the reader which would otherwise result in exposition or infodumps. This is a popular technique in school situations - where the characters could be learning about the history of the realm, or the science behind a particularly plot-relevant device.
Dialogue is also a great way to show the personalities of characters - if the main character's neighbour is a hateful, spiteful, stereotypical nasty old man, don't tell it like I just did, show it in his reaction to her cat wandering across his lawn or so forth.
To avoid lots of dialogue tags: he said, she said, he shouted, she whispered etc, try and intersperse them with actions. Show the speaker's body language and actions as they talk. Describe the other character's reaction. It is important though, that if you are showing a reaction, do it on the line below, for the reader will automatically attribute the first name they see following dialogue as the speaker, if they are on the same line.
Use adverbs sparingly and try not to overdo the variety of "said" alternatives that you use.
Vary Sentence Structure
Shorter sharper sentences build tension, and are great for action scenes.
Longer, more complicated sentences will slow the prose and can be great for drawing out the suspense.
Try not to start all sentences with the same word, this is a sure sign of Telling:
1. Think about a chore or activity you feel strongly about - whether it be love, hate, anger or disappointment - then write a short passage of either yourself or a character engaging in this activity. Do not directly Tell the reader what the activity is, nor how it makes you feel. Show them.
2. Have another character enter the scene. This character is feeling a strong emotion too, one that contrasts with the character in #1. Show us, through body language and dialogue, how this character behaves as perceived by Character #1.
3. Have character #1's emotion change as a result of Character #2s behaviour.
- Purple prose - over-describing in flowery terms that confuses and/or bores the reader (we don't want to be consulting the dictionary as we read)
- filling the story with irrelevant details (do we really need to know every little thing about that walnut sideboard?)
- false foreshadowing - this can be used to your advantage, but be aware of it. If a particular item is described in intense detail early on, the reader will automatically assume it will be of some, probably critical, relevance later on in the tale.
- disrupting the tension - too much detail about irrelevant things when the story is building to an emotional or physical climax.
which brings us to:
When to Tell and not Show:
- in action scenes - or other scenes where they will slow, or halt the prose - DO NOT use long descriptions. Think of how the POV character would perceive the situation.
- if you have a lot of information and need to get it presented fast.
- when describing an everyday task that is of little consequence/relevance to the main plot (we do not need, for example, all the steps to making tea).
And remember: Your readers are intelligent creatures (they chose your book, after all!) give them some credit - you do not need to show AND tell the same thing unless there is some ambivalence in how it might be perceived. For example:
Aurelia huddled beneath the overhang, tail tucked in tight to her body, shivering. "Don't find me, don't find me," she thought, as though that simple mantra would protect her from the Hunter. She was terrified.