Show Don’t Tell

In case anyone’s wondering about my long absence from blogging, one of my side projects I’ve been working on is editing my last and final installment to my story series: Chasing Blue. Besides fixing the dialogue and making sure it flows better, one of the things I hoped to improve upon was to do more showing vs. telling in my writing. What does it mean to show as it relates to writing? Why does it matter? How can you “show” in your writing? This blog post will attempt to answer all three of those questions.

To tell someone is to state what happened. I could tell someone about my trip to New York City this past summer. I could relate how I did a Bethel tour in Warwick, did wine-tasting, went to the Metropolitan museum, or visited the WTC memorial by ground zero. I’m stating what happened on the trip. And frankly there’s nothing wrong in itself about telling someone what happened if they ask a question and want a simple explanation of what happened. However oftentimes merely telling someone what happened may not always be suffice. For my older sister who didn’t make it on the trip to New York she insisted on seeing pictures of the trips.

It’s similar with our writing. It’s much easier to tell the reader what happened to your characters. To tell the reader that your character is feeling angry, sad, or happy. The  reader will get a surface overview of events without having to engage with the characters and the plot. But showing requires more effort. It’s more than just stating the obvious. It forces the writer to show what’s happening by means of descriptive language that captures the scene in a way that the reader can picture what’s happening. Instead of passively reading your story, the reader is able to engage with the story on a sensory level. It helps the reader put themselves in the scene and make it truly come alive.

How do we show?

With our descriptions it doesn’t have to stop with our sense of sight. It can and should when possible engage multiple senses. After all we have five senses. When describing a scene in your story, think about how something in that space looks, feels, sounds, smells, and tastes. Use one or more descriptions that captures the senses you want to convey. It will make the scene come alive for the reader because they can reference what you’re describing. For example they can imagine the aroma of homemade apple pie wafting from the oven. You can still taste the cinnamon that dust your fingertips while you peer into the oven, its golden crust browning to a finish. From this example alone you can point out multiples senses used in that description of that scene. You can also infer based on the descriptions that the pie is about ready to be eaten!

 

In the spirit of this post I think it’s best that we show examples of telling vs. showing.

Example 1:

The crowds went wild.

The crowds jumped to their feet to cheer.

Example 2

The second lap came as quickly as the first lap had gone. All of it was surreal. I tried to tune out the loud chants, the curses thrown out from disgruntled fans, the dust that spewed in my eyes and just focus on keeping to a steady pace.

I pinched myself only to remind me all of this was really happening. My head was still in a jumbled blur trying to catch up to the rest of my body. Loud chants of praise were mingled with the curses thrown from disgruntled fans. To me it was all noise. Kicked up dust stung my eyes, forcing me to ignore everything around me. Now all I could think about was the burning in my eyes. Stay calm, Troy. I blinked to find my horses had veered slightly to the left. With the reins latched around my waist they followed my motion…

Example 3

“There is Troy!” Marius exclaimed cheerfully. “I was looking all over for you two,” he smiled.

“There you are Troy!” Marius exclaimed with glee in his voice. “I was looking all over for you two.”

Example 4

“Well I apologize,” he said sarcastically.

“Oh, I am so terribly sorry I disturbed your match. At least I came at the exciting part,” he said, grinning.

******

Look again at the examples. Which ones told you something? Three out of the four examples used this part of speech.

Adverbs.

When we use adverbs in our writing we’re telling the reader how an action was done. For example 3 above, “exclaim” was the verb and “cheerfully” was the adverb. Just to be clear adverbs are not “bad.” I still use them on occasion. But they can be overused to the point that our message becomes redundant.  “She banged her fists angrily” is a good example of this point. If you’re banging your fists, there’s a good chance you are angry. No need to state the obvious.

Let’s look at example 3 again closely…

“There is Troy!” Marius exclaimed cheerfully. “I was looking all over for you two,” he smiled.

“There you are Troy!” Marius exclaimed with glee in his voice.

To show how the character made this exclamation without resorting to adverbs,  I added a tag line to describe the quality of his voice. The reader can then infer that the character is in a cheerful mood.

While showing may not spell out everything to our readers as writers we have to trust that they are smart enough to figure out what our characters are feeling. If we provided enough context on how an action was carried out readers can infer the rest. Still though we need to be balanced in showing. In some instances too much description can bog the pace of the story down. If you’re writing a fast paced action scene you’ll have to be smart in how you use descriptions.

In conclusion balance is needed when writing. At times we’ll need to state the facts. Other times we can show. Granted, telling something is much easier than showing. But I think showing it speaks louder.

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