Show Don’t Tell

The first and most frequently repeated tip a wannabe fiction writer is given is show, don’t tell. You’re writing a story. Therefore you are telling a story. You are a storyteller. No one has ever heard of a story-shower. Show, don’t tell? What exactly does that mean and how do you accomplish it?

Simply put, showing allows a reader to follow the story into a scene or setting, as if they were there. There, they can feel and experience the story unfolding with the characters. It draws a reader into the story using all of their senses. Working a healthy balance of showing and telling into your story can engage your reader.

Here are five suggestions for ways in which you can show:

Dialogue. This is a staple in your toolbox to show readers something. Consider this example. You can tell: “Dad was really angry.” Or your reader can hear it for themselves: “Darin!” Dad shouted, “Get over here right now! What were you thinking? I brought you into this world, Son, and I’ll take you out!” (Wow. Flashback!)

And in that example, I’m reminded of a time I’ve seen, or heard, or otherwise experienced before. Now I’m able to connect with the characters in the story in a more personal way. Dialogue is a great way to convey emotion, attitude and give great insights into a particular character’s persona. You don’t need to say “Bobby was a jerk.” You show them in dialogue. And they’ll appreciate it all the more.

Sensory descriptives. When you want to show a scene, thinking about your reader’s many senses and appealing to them can help. Warning, though–this can easily be overdone. So proceed in moderation. Consider the mega hit from the rock band Journey for a moment, otherwise known as Tony Soprano’s swan song–Don’t Stop Believin’. “A singer in a smokey room; smell of wine and cheap perfume…” It paints a picture, doesn’t it? Brings you there much more than if he’d have simply sung, “There was a singer in a bar.” Sensory descriptives appeal, because we’ve all got a sense for what a smokey room would  ‘feel like’ to us. An asthmatic, I start to wheeze when I hear Steve Perry sing those words! Everyone has some sense of what a boozy, alcohol saturated smelling room might be, or how overwhelming cheap perfume–especially in excess–can be. So we can put ourselves in the scene.

Adjectives and adverbs. Okay, back to grammar class. You remember what adjectives and adverbs are used for in language. Again, a caution: don’t over do it. This is another one that easily identifies sophomoric writing. Here’s a hint: Can you use adjectives and adverbs to speak into the sensory descriptions mentioned above? If you can, that would be far better than loading up on gag-reflex redundant adjectives: She was very meticulously dressed in a deep ocean blue, sequined blouse, with a thick, wool scarf of fuchsia, and wore a cute, little, raspberry beret, tilted… {closed the book}.

Figurative language. This is another good tool to be applied in moderation. This one is easy to over exaggerate. You can tell: “the virtuoso played his cello.” Or you can show by using some figurative language: “he and his instrument were one, making beautiful music together.” Or, as mentioned, you can go way overboard: “like lovers they melted into one another…” Yeah … Awkward.

Specifics. When you’re finished with a story, or you’re through with a section and ready to do some revising, go back through and find every place where you’ve been vague and get specific. For instance, if you wrote: “She had never felt like this before”, spend a few minutes imagining the specific feeling, and revise. Show us what that feeling felt like to the character–and let us determine how absolutely amazing it was, something we’d never felt before.

Now, a disclaimer. I don’t share all this with you because I think I have mastered it myself. I’m very much an artist–trying. I do hope that these suggestions provide some thought provocation for you as you work on your craft, much as they do for me. So let’s get to work–showing.

Do you have any suggestions for showing that have worked well for you–either as a writer or as a reader?

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