We’ve all heard it a million times. When it comes to your writing, don’t just tell your reader, show them. Sure, you can have the world’s greatest plot line, but if your words are dull an non-emotive, you won’t keep your readers interested. You need to involve them. Make them feel something. Make them want to escape into your book until three o’clock in the morning.
So, here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine whether you’re telling instead of showing?
- Does the sentence simply state a fact?
- If the sentence were on its own, what does it really convey to my reader?
- Can I evoke some feeling in my reader like pain, love, peace, happiness, fear, anxiety?
- What senses do I want the reader to use to “get the picture?” Think about touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight.
- Did I leave any questions in the readers mind that I should answer?
- Could I give more specific (concrete) details to paint a better image in the reader’s mind?
- Could I get my point across in a different way; for example, would dialog clarify what I want to say?
- Can I give an example (a bit of back story maybe) to demonstrate what I want to say?
In this post, I’m sharing some examples from the first draft of my own novel (with names changed to protect the innocent). I think these will help you understand a little better how to show instead of tell.
Clouds obscured the moon and stars.
I suggest that the verb is… ah… boring. What could be better? Write an action that the reader can see in his mind. What do the clouds look like. What do they do? Create some action and a better visual. Can a simile or metaphor help you accomplish your visual? What effect are you trying to create. In this instance, something bad is going to happen, so I want to create a dark, ominous atmosphere.
Ebony clouds churned across the sky extinguishing the moonlight.
Luckily, John knew his way around the manor.
Yep, John knew his way around, but so what? How or why does he know the manor so well. A little extra detail might be more interesting and perhaps give the reader more information.
John knew the manor like he knew the back of his hand.
Having worked with Lord Lawley for the last sixteen years, John knew the manor like the back of his hand.
Randy fell hard against the stone wall.
Randy fell hard but how hard? What happened? Is he dead? Is he bleeding? Did he cry? Paint a better picture of the fall. Make your reader feel the hurt.
Randy fell against the unforgiving stone wall with an agonizing grunt and slumped to the ground.
Off and on over the years, he had frightful confusing dreams about his parents.
Again, give some detail. What was so frightening or confusing?
Since childhood, he dreamed of his parents, but when he awoke all he could grasp were hazy fragments, black shapes floating in the night, and a bleak emptiness that haunted his soul. In one dream that he could remember, his mother floated over a shadowy black pool of water beneath a falls and his father called her name over and over from far away. Was she dead? He couldn’t remember his father. Was it his father’s voice? Was he dead too?
Diana told him how St. Brigid was a major goddess highly revered in these lands before Christianity. She was a sun goddess, a goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and wells, among other things. And, she was known for gathering and using herbs to heal. And she knew how to forge steal into tools.
The story’s narrator tells him (us) about St. Brigid. Yep, even uses the verb to tell. Dull! Try some dialog between two characters having a discussion about the goddess.
“Did they teach you about St. Brigid?
“Did they tell you that in the old traditions there was also a goddess named Brigid?”
“I thought not.”
“Who was she?”
“She was a major goddess highly revered in these lands before Christianity. She was a sun goddess, a goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and well, among other things. And, she was known for gathering and using herbs to heal,” she glanced at David, whose eyebrows were raised in astonishment, “and she knew how to forge steal into tools.”
“That sounds very much like the St. Brigid they taught us about.”
… and so on
Don’t forget to use your thesaurus. It’s your friend. But be careful of making your writing too flowery. Watch out for too many adjectives and adverbs. You don’t need to pad your writing with all those extra words, but you do want your reader to visualize what’s going on. You want to create emotion, action, and images. You want your reader to experience your story.
Just a reminder though before I close. Telling has its place. For example, when you simply need to give information. For example, you need to let the reader know that something happened, before you move to the next scene, and the information necessary only to build on or prepare the reader for something that will happen later. For example, you can talk about time passing: Winter melted into spring… and go on with your story.
Time to Write away! Look at your own writing and see where you just give a fact rather than a visual, evocative description. If you have some good examples to share, by all means, I’d love to hear from you. I’ll even post them for others to read and learn from.