“Show don’t tell” is a very common piece of advice given to writers of all levels, but it can be difficult for beginner writers to grasp this concept when they first start out. Often, journalists who turn to fiction writing have the biggest adjustment to make, because news reporting relies heavily on presenting the facts and narrating the events clearly. Some writers continue to practice an expository style in fiction writing for years, which makes breaking the habit really difficult when they do learn the difference. Of course, there is a place for exposition, and I'll cover that in another article.
The essence of “showing” the story is handing over some of your control of your story to your reader, by allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. This is difficult for many writers to do – they specify that their heroine is “beautiful”, for example, because they want explicit control over how the reader perceives her. But it’s far more satisfying to the reader to be presented with a character free from the writer’s judgement of her – and be allowed to decide that she’s a character they can like or respect, and they care that she gets what she wants.
Character Feelings, Behaviour, and Motivation
Sometimes writers find that minor characters have become more interesting than the protagonist and discover that readers care more about what happens to these characters. Many times this is because the writer has flattened the protagonist by over-explaining, but left the reader to figure out the minor character’s motivations. Take the risk that your reader is intelligent enough to understand what you mean. Instead of explaining that Mary behaves the way she does because she loves Ted but can’t express herself, leave that part up to the reader to figure out. Use clues, like the way she behaves around him (does she turn towards him and then change her mind and hurry away), what she says, or doesn’t say, to other characters about him, the signs of anxiety that she shows when he’s nearby (rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, shallow breathing). Try this with a short scene – describe all the signs and symptoms of what a character is feeling without mentioning the feeling itself.
The setting is often overlooked as a means of drawing the reader into the mood and atmosphere of the story, but it can make a big difference to its effectiveness. Avoid hollow descriptions that tell the reader what they must think about the setting. “A vibrant, energetic town” could mean skyscrapers and the corporate rat-race to a city dwelling reader, or a bustling farming community to a rural reader. Instead, if you describe a terraced row of old tudor-style houses and children running around the streets, buskers performing on every corner, and a harvest parade coming up the main street – your city reader might think that sounds like a boring and bucolic place; your country reader might think it sounds hectic and noisy; a suburban reader may think it sounds quaint. But each reader has visualised the scene and has placed themselves in your story.
Visualisation – Screenwriting Technique
A very useful technique to practice showing rather than telling, is to pretend you’re writing the scene as a screenplay. Describe exactly what you want to appear on the screen. You can’t have a voice-over telling the audience that the village is quaint – you need to describe it for the set production crew. Likewise with the fear that the bank clerk feels when he’s held up at gun point – does the makeup team need to be ready to spray “sweat” on his face? What actions do you want the actor to use to portray his agitation? Developing your skills at showing your story will tighten your fiction and make it more of a page-turner for your readers.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in November 2006. © Elsa Neal
For more help developing your fiction writing skills, try
Immediate Fiction : A Complete Writing Course by Jerry Cleaver
Description - Elements of Fiction Writing by Monica Wood