Showing, Not Telling

"Show, don't tell!"

I'm sure most of us are familiar with this request. Indeed, this tip finds its way into nearly every list of writing tips and tricks. However, what can get confusing is how to go about solving this issue, one which every writer will come across now and again. Oftentimes in writing, one may be tempted to write a sentence which is similar to this one:

 

Leigh felt overcome by grief.

 

The problem with this sentence is easy to identify: the author is telling, not showing, how the character (Leigh) feels. The solution, then, is to change the sentence so that it shows the reader that Leigh feels overcome by grief rather then telling the reader that she feels that way. The trick to this is to let the readers draw their own conclusions instead of giving them the information outright. In this example, we may rewrite the sentence like this:

 

Leigh's knees buckled, and she collapsed to the ground, sobbing, tears coursing down her cheeks.

 

This sentence does not tell the readers outright the emotion Leigh is experiencing, but instead gives them the evidence necessary to conclude that our character has been overcome with grief. In another example, we may seek to convey that our character by the name of Nayeli has begun to develop a crush on another character, Zach. A telling sentence may be something like this:

 

Nayeli could sense that she was beginning to develop a crush on Zach.

 

Again, this leaves no room for the reader to guess or draw conclusions using evidence. It is almost as if the author jumps right out of the story, exclaiming, "Hey, reader! Nayeli's crushing on Zach! Just your friendly neighborhood author keeping you updated!"

 

This is a bad idea for two reasons: One, if the aforementioned did indeed happen, it's reasonable to assume that your reader would drop the book at once, never to pick it up again. Two, this approach obviously disrupts the mystery and discovery of reading. As an author, I'd like my readers to gather the evidence themselves, debate among themselves as to what will happen next, and so forth. This sentence destroys the possibility of that. Nayeli is cultivating a crush on Zach, end of story. A rewrite would give clues that Nayeli feels this way, rather than asserting so in blatant terms.

 

When Zach brushed Nayeli's hand, she felt her heart jump inside of her rib cage, and she noticed a warm sensation spreading throughout the apples of her cheeks.

 

The now revised sentence shows Nayeli's emotions towards Zach in a way which is obvious, yet not as obvious as merely stating her romantic attraction.

 

Where the "show, don't tell" advice gets particularly tricky is when one is dealing with a first-person narrative. Since this type of storytelling involves being inside the mind of a character, it can be very tempting to merely have said character state their thoughts and feelings to the readers. Let's say our narrator, Leigh Jr., has an aversion to entering a certain building. One could end up writing a sentence like this:

 

I did not want to set foot inside that ugly shack.

 

Now, there are times when a sentence such as this will suffice. However, there is a trick: the sentence does not fill the shoes of emotion communication on its own. It must be backed by a couple of preceding sentences, which will show Leigh Jr.'s emotion before she tells the audience how she feels.

 

I gulped back a lump in my throat and wiped my sweaty palms on my robe. Holding my breath, I crept closer to the shack, which stunk of rotting wood. I wrinkled my nose and forced myself to continue towards it, even though I did not want to set foot inside that ugly shack.

 

Here we have some scene building before Leigh Jr. communicates her disgust outright (which is consistent with her character, I might add). Again, this helps the readers establish for themselves the thoughts and emotions which Leigh Jr. is experiencing before she reveals them.

 

Transforming your own sentences from sentences that telling to showing is deceptively simple. The key is to ask yourself, "How do I show (x)?" To show indecisiveness, one could describe the tense moments of hesitation, show the character's eyes darting back and forth, and so on. To show anger, clenched fists, a raised voice, or, for first-person narratives, "seeing red" will communicate that emotion. Tension in a relationship can be communicated by avoidance of eye contact and aversion to touch, among other things. Another good strategy is to have one character call another out. Instead of telling the reader that the character Zenith feels ill, our character Zach can notice that Zenith seems a bit pale, or that he is bent over as if in pain. Dialogue can also serve to show such things, in this case, Zach asks Zenith if he feels all right, and Zenith's answer shows that he is indeed feeling quite sick.

 

In conclusion, by watching your sentences and making sure that you let the reader gather their own evidence, you can improve your writing significantly. What better time to do this than the month in which many of us are seeking to write upwards of 50,000 words?

 

Go forth and show the world what a great writer you are!

 

Happy Writing and don't forget to vote!

 

-H. R. Kasper