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You must have heard it a million times as a writer, but it is rarely explained well. “Show, don’t tell” replaces an abstract summary statement with short scenes or sentences of engaging detail. This allows the reader to visualise and come to a conclusion on their own rather than having to merely trust the writer. It is, in essence, a more powerful way to engage a reader to emote with your story.
In this fortnight we’ll be demonstrating why you should show rather than tell using a series of lessons, audio and exercises which will teach you how to identify and eradicate telling passages in your work. In this lesson you will discover various ways of showing and in what situations it is ok to tell.
TOPIC ONE: Show Don’t Tell – An Audio From Kim
Listen or download the audio for this section here!
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TOPIC TWO: What Does ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Actually Mean?
The best way to demonstrate this is by example. Take the sentence:
“Aaron was a furtive man who never cleaned his flat.”
This sentence told two things about Aaron: it tells that he’s furtive, and it tells that he doesn’t clean his flat. It showed nothing, just gave bald statements of fact not rooted in any particular scene, nor associated with any particular images or sense details. In essence, it is not allowing a reader to engage with the character.
But what if it showed all of this rather than told it?
“Aaron picked his way over mouldy pizza cartons to the window, where he twitched the curtain aside and peered down to the street below.”
We never have to say he’s furtive because he behaves furtively. We never have to say his flat isn’t clean because we can ‘see’ it with our own eyes. The specifics make this a much more engaging scene and provide rich sensory detail to orient the reader in the text.
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TOPIC THREE: How Do You Show Rather Than Tell?
Here are ways to show more than tell:
- Always be in a viewpoint. Get inside the character’s head; see the world from their eyes. What do they see? What’s important? What stands out?
- As much as possible, use the five senses. Including more sense details in a scene will assist with showing rather than telling. Sight is most common but the other senses are great for specific scenes:
– Sound: This is good for creepy scenes, especially when a character can hear something, but not see it…
– Smell: Is useful for scenes designed to invoke memory and nostalgia. Where the smell of a particular perfume or maybe tobacco smoke reminds a character of their grandpa, or where some disgusting decomposition of a body is occurring at a crime scene.
– Touch: This is one of the best senses to evoke for erotic scenes. For example, the sensory response to skin against skin is a very active image.
– Taste: Helpful for when a character is eating. Use descriptors like sweet, sour, bitter etc. Or use it to set a scene – for example, at a seaside location the character might ‘taste’ the salt in the air.
- Make the characters talk to each other in dialogue. Don’t summarise everything they say with, “She told him that she’d had enough and wanted out of the relationship.” That is not as engaging as hearing her roar at him, “You’re a horse’s butt!”
- Use descriptive powers for good. See the scene differently, take on a unique perspective or employ an interesting metaphor or simile: “He had a thick head,” versus, “His head looked like a Xmas ham.” Aim to engage.
Don’t summarise in a few lines what can be shown or described in a scene, rooted in a place and time. Open it up, put the character in that place and show what’s going on.
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TOPIC FOUR: When Is It Better To Tell Rather Than Show?
Sometimes, of course, stories do require a summary. Summaries are good for:
- Covering lots of time: e.g. “For the next four months I tried to forget about what she had said…” The reader doesn’t need to see everything that happens in that four months as presumably it is not relevant or important to the story.
- If you wish to reiterate an element without repeating it: e.g. “Every day that week I practised those scales, and didn’t seem to get any better…” This is better than showing someone practicing every day, because that gets boring and repetitive for a reader.
- Unimportant stuff: e.g. “He ate a quick breakfast and caught the eight-fifteen train to the city, picking up a newspaper on the way…” This is better than saying he cooked breakfast, sat down for it, tasted his eggs, tasted his bacon etc. All these details aren’t relevant, so do not need to be shown.
However, any scene that has the potential to increase tension or generate conflict is a good place to show, rather than tell.
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The next time you go through your manuscript, identify places where it’s a bit dull, too zoomed out, or lacklustre, and determine if you’ve told somewhere when you should have shown.
A first draft will commit the sin of telling rather than showing on many occasions. Now is the time to move away from a boring, non-fiction style summary vibe to scenes full to the brim of engaging detail.
This activity will:
- Make you aware of what sentences tell rather than show,
- Allow you to assess and restructure these telling elements to be more engaging and,
- Develop the skills needed to hunt down and rewrite similar scenes in your own manuscript.
WHAT TO DO:
Rewrite these paragraphs so they show more than they tell and post your efforts in the Show Don’t Tell Forum. Keep your rewrites below 200 words. What techniques and methods have your peers used from Topic Three that you hadn’t thought of?
- I stepped out of the warm pub. It was freezing on the street. I had enough money for the bus, so I walked to the stop and caught it.
- It was very early when I arrived at Mr. Crabbe’s place. He was the meanest man I ever met, so I was nervous about our meeting. When he opened the door, I confessed that I’d run over his cat. He didn’t take it well.
- As the sun set, Liz realised it was far too late to be alone in the forest. Creepy noises surrounded her. She checked her phone, but there was no signal, so she hurried back to the car.
Then find two examples in your own work, rewrite them, and post them in the Show Don’t Tell Forum. Be supportive of your peers’ efforts and let them know what you liked about their rewrites.
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