Show and Tell

Next to “write what you know”, the most popular piece of writing advice is “show, don’t tell.” But what do they mean by showing?

Showing is when you reveal things about your characters, the story world, relationships, etc., as you go about advancing your story. With telling, you stop the story in its tracks, kill whatever momentum you had going, and back up like a dump truck to dump a ton of information onto your reader.

Good writing should evoke sensation in the reader – don’t just say “it’s raining”, help the reader experience the storm. Involve the emotions. Take fear, for instance. Fear is a strong emotion with a great many ways to describe it - stomach in knots, breaking out in a sweat, quaking, shivering, uncertainty in the eyes, ducking in anticipation of a blow, a strong urge to run away. . .

Telling: She was afraid of the approaching storm.
Showing: She stared, frozen in place as lightning lit up the sky. Her heart sped up and she choked back a whimper, shivering as a breeze swept over her sweat dampened skin leaving goose flesh in its wake.

You want your reader invested in the character. You want the reader inside the action. That's the sign of good writing . . . to pull the reader out of his ordinary life and put him in the middle of someplace else.

Many writers resort to telling because they believe the reader won't get the point if they don't. Often writers tell, then show, to make sure they get their point across, in effect treating their readers like morons. But the truth is that when you take out the telling, the showing remains. And that's all the reader needs in most cases.

Fiction is all about forging an emotional link between the author and the reader. One of the best ways to do this is by creating vivid images that immerse readers in the world of the fiction — not merely telling readers what’s happening, but showing it to them.

You want to make your writing vivid enough to grab a reader’s attention and draw them into the story. Showing them is an important way to do this. To help you show instead of tell, keep in mind the following:

Avoid overusing adverbs. Instead, use strong, specific verbs.
Use the five senses.
Don’t simply name feelings, let you characters experience them.
Use expressive dialogue to show the characters’ emotions and outlook.
Generate emotion through vivid writing and characters’ reactions.
Use well-placed details to bring scenes to life.

Does this mean all telling is bad? Not at all, telling does have its place. Use it for:

Slowing things down – a story that’s non-stop action can be exhausting for the reader. Telling, through narrative summary, can give the reader a breather after an extended, action-filled scene. It also varies the story’s rhythm.

Condensing recurring action – once a scene has been shown and the reader knows what it consists of, it doesn’t need to be stretched out into further scenes. It can be summarized instead. You can also summarize minor scenes that are similar to a key scene that will take place later on.

Minor characters – if a character doesn’t warrant a full scene, needed information can be delivered without straying unnecessarily from the plot line.

Transition between scenes - a brief event can smooth the way between bits of action or character interaction, without leaving an illogical gap or a sudden, unintentional jump in time.

The mark of a good writer is the ability to use both showing and telling to their best advantage. A successful story is one that has a balance between the two, and only you, as the writer, can decide how much should be shown, and how much should be told.

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