Anyone who has been exposed to creative writing classes, workshops, or seminars has undoubtedly been informed that one of the cardinal rules is to SHOW not TELL. But to the non-writer or newbie to the craft, what does that mean? Whether fiction or non-fiction, isn’t telling a story every author’s job?
Yes, but it’s how the story is told that makes the difference. I usually explain that perusing a tale that belabors a TELLING writing style compares to reading a repair manual––no imagination required, just follow the step-by-step procedures. SHOWING, on the other hand, typically features a more active and descriptive quality that allows readers to visualize the story and become more personally involved with the scenes, the characters, and the plot line.
So, how can a writer SHOW more and TELL less in their work? Based on what I’ve learned from both the classroom and hands-on experience, here’s some suggestions from my perspective.
- Avoid lengthy narrative. True, many literary classics convey their plots via abundant narrative. But lengthy narrative can lull writers into a TELLING mode and also slow the pace. Overall, use a well-proportioned blend of narrative and dialogue to keep the plot moving (a segue to item 2).
- Allow characters to speak for themselves. Most novels are written in either first-person or third-person format. First-person is most often presented from the protagonist’s point of view. Third-person utilizes an omniscient narrator to guide readers through the plot. In either case, don’t gag characters by allowing the narrator to TELL what they said. Instead, let the characters speak for themselves and relate their stories through their own words/dialogue
- Use more active verbiage (active voice). Certainly verbs such as go, went, walked, talked, and looked are all valid verbs, but they are also pretty bland––pretty passive and TELLING. Instead, think about how the character moved, spoke, saw, etc. Allow readers to picture the action, not just read about it. For example: shuffled / strolled / ambled /swaggered instead of walked; muttered / hollered / whispered / cooed instead of talked; ogled / leered / sneered / squinted instead of looked. Also, be creative. Many nouns can be easily converted to active verbs that will help readers visualize the action. For example: Most folks know what a pinball is and how it moves. Stating that ‘a drunkard pinballed down the hallway’ converts a noun to a verb and SHOWs how the sot bounced from wall to wall as he traversed the hallway.
- Utilize vivid description. SHOW by painting strong, clear images with words that will help readers immerse themselves into the story’s characters, objects, and scenes. Caution: Avoid information dumps, lengthy paragraphs that detail everything about a character or scene in one spot. Instead, spread out the details as the story/scene progresses so that description doesn’t become a distraction that kills the plot’s momentum.
- Utilize all the human senses. Sight is the obvious sense that dominates storytelling. But what about the other four senses to help SHOW readers exactly what’s happening to the characters and their surroundings? Expanding the use of the senses allows readers to further use their imaginations and draw themselves into the story. They begin to see, feel, taste, smell, and hear what takes place in any given scene. Then there’s the “sixth sense, which” may be a tough one to pull off, but don’t totally ignore it as an effective tool.
Okay, you won’t find these last three items listed in anyone’s on-writing textbook or curriculum outline. I confess. The labels are mine.
- The “I” factor. Using I, I, I, or he, he, he, / she, she, she to excess. Sure, these are valid and necessary pronouns. But when one of them opens every paragraph, the writing gets stale. When I, he/she links to a verb that describes one of the human senses––I watched, I touched, I felt, I smelled, I heard––it’s often the tipoff to a TELLING writing style. Once a character’s point of view is established, readers don’t need to be told who sensed what. Instead, use what the character sensed as the subject of the sentence. Describe / SHOW the scene and its action and leave “I” out of the picture. The resulting sentences will be more active and better paced.
TELL: I watched many butterflies in the garden.
SHOW: Monarch butterflies swarmed the garden.
- Bad compass: Avoid unnecessary directives. If characters in an airplane look anywhere but DOWN to view terra-firma, everybody’s in deep poop. A character describing the summit of Mt. McKinley from the valley below will definitely be looking UP. There’s no need to TELL readers the obvious, something they can already visualize without cues.
- Dumb-down dilemma: Avoid over explaining content. Instead, allow readers to further enjoy the plot line and characters by exercising their imaginations. Yes, there can be instances when a writer needs to add a bit more detail for clarification. But give readers some credit. The simple fact that they are reading indicates they are likely intelligent enough to also grasp individual situations without walking them through step-by-step.
Hope this post helped some folks. As always, thanks for stopping by.