Show It, Don’t Tell It – How to Spot Telling in Your Drafts
The concept of “show, don’t tell” is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice and one of the hardest to implement consistently in both fiction and non-fiction. Showing readers what’s happening in your scene instead of telling them is simple, right? It’s not. Even if you’ve been writing for a long time, telling is a hard thing to spot in your own writing and takes practice to eliminate.
Why is this important? Showing is more than just cliché writing advice. When done right, it activates your reader’s brain by painting vivid pictures in their mind. This means that your scenes play out like a movie in their head. Showing drags your reader into your scenes, opening your characters and your world up for them to explore. If you’ve ever flipped the pages of a book until way past your bedtime, that writer has probably done a great job of showing.
So, what does showing look like? It’s the difference between:
Johnny was devastated when he read Susan’s note. (Telling)
Johnny fell to his knees and let Susan’s note flutter to the ground. He choked back a sob. (Showing)
In the telling example, Johnny’s feelings are named in the most direct way. There’s nothing to interpret or make meaning of. In short, it’s boring. In the showing example, Johnny’s reaction to the situation is described and the reader is shown a glimpse of what the moment means to him. This pulls them deep into the story.
It would be amazing to nail this technique every time you sit down to write. But the truth is, first drafts are often full of telling, so don’t despair if it takes you a few tries. When you’re drafting, you’re telling yourself the full story for the first time and letting it unfold as you write. The trick is to spot telling in your early drafts so you can turn it into wonderful showing details when you’re revising, drawing your reader in.
How do you know if your writing has telling in it? You might be telling if…
- Something’s happening off screen. If your characters refer to something or someone who’s not in the scene, it’s telling. Bring the missing action or characters into your scene to fix this, or use a flashback if the information can’t happen in the moment. Flashbacks drag the reader back in time in the narrator’s mind, and can use showing techniques to make the them feel like they’re there.
- Generalities. Watch for general terms like “many times” or “somebody” or vague descriptions like “stuff” or “things”. When you skim over what’s happening, readers have a hard time picturing your scene and will disengage. Instead, give readers specific details about a specific event, so their brain can paint a picture of what’s happening on the page.
- Naming Emotions. Rather than telling us your character is furious, show us their clenched fists and red face.
- Info dumps. These are long passages that explain something without letting the reader in on what this information means to your characters. If you must deliver big chunks of information, break this up by having your character react to what they’re learning in the scene. And keep it brief. Or better yet, find a way to have your characters discover the information you want them to know in the scene itself.
Show, don’t tell is one of the most powerful techniques a writer can master. The process of getting showing details on the page can be iterative, but it’s worth the effort to find telling in your drafts and replace it with juicy details that a reader can hold onto. When used consistently, showing will pull your reader into your fabulous fictional or non-fictional world and hold them spellbound until they’ve turned the final page of your book.
By Suzy Vadori
Opal Writers’ Magazine, November 2020
Suzy Vadori is a Book Coach, Editor and the Award Winning Author.
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