What exactly does “Show, don’t tell” mean?

canstockphoto6655007The best writing advice I ever received was how to identify when I’m “telling,” rather than “showing.” And I’m going to share that advice with you.

You probably already know what “telling versus showing” means. If so, skip down past the examples. If not, well, read on.

“Telling” is relaying information. It’s generic, lifeless, and rather detached. It’s often the opposite of storytelling, but rather info dumping.  “Showing” allows your reader to follow your characters into the moment. The reader can see, feel and experience what the characters are experiencing. It also makes your book more interesting and impactful.

For example:

  • Tom was angry at the boy on the bike. (Telling)
  • Tom’s face reddened. He reached down and grasped a large rock then hurled it at the boy on the bike. (Showing)
  • Cheryl was in love. She had never felt like this before. (Telling)
  • Cheryl’s heart thudded in her chest as she glanced up at Chad. She smiled at him, before her legs tuned to jell-o and her forehead broke out in perspiration. She honestly didn’t know what had come over her.  (Showing)
  • “We need to leave,” Addy said impatiently. (Telling)
  • Addy drummed her fingertips on top the desk and looked over her shoulder for a third time. She fidgeted in her seat. “We need to leave.” (Showing)

Take the time to paint the scene. Don’t explain what’s happening, use sensory language (see, hear, taste, smell and touch) to reveal what’s happening. Use an active voice, rather than a passive voice, meaning beef-up sentences that rely on “had” and “was.”

I received some great advice about how to recognize telling versus showing. If you’re not sure, ask, “If this was a movie, could the camera see it?”

The camera can’t see “angry” or “in love” or “impatiently.” Intellectually, we understand the meaning of those words. But, we’re writing a novel, not a text book. We want our readers to feel anger, and love, and impatience.

The camera can see – as well as our own mind’s eye – descriptions of “Tom’s face reddening and him reaching for a rock.” We can feel his anger; we don’t need to be told that he’s angry.

There are exceptions, but as a whole, asking “Can the camera see it” will help you spot and eliminate telling.

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