Show, don’t tell

ImageWhat’s wrong with this:

‘Jim felt hurt that his wife did not discuss her plans with him.’?

It sounds like an excerpt from a psychological report. Surely not one from the narrative of a sci-fi thriller. Yet, this is where it’s from.

The temptation to spoon-feed the reader about your characters’ thoughts, emotions, real intentions and so on is hard to resist. It’s wired deeply into the way we think not to go around in circles if we can go in a straight line. Why on Earth would we show Jim starring blankly at his cup of coffee, just after a row with his wife over her secret plans? Why would we wonder whether the reader might get the message, when we can make sure they get it by stating it loudly and clearly instead?

One of the answers would be that it requires more effort. We would have to build a scene to show Jim’s sadness. We would have to worry about its atmosphere: is it atmospheric enough? Is it developed enough? Is it too much? On top of it all, it might mess up our characterisation – after all, it’s not like Jim to get all sad and melancholy over a row. So we might have to go back over the whole thing and do a lot of rewriting that we wouldn’t have to do if we just went for the, ‘Jim felt hurt that his wife didn’t discuss his plans with him.’

But fiction works well as a form of escapism and we read fiction because we seek to get involved in an extraordinary and enthralling story, empathise with amazing characters, put simply, compensate for the lack of drama in our lives. As a writer, you achieve a dramatic effect and give your readers the experience they seek by showing, not telling.

Showing, not telling means creating a word picture instead of a block description. It also means organic character development instead of block characterisation. It means building scenes with an absorbing atmosphere around them, rather than simply stating that Hannah felt this way and Jim did this followed by that.

I don’t think there is one book on editing fiction out there that doesn’t point out this weakness of weaknesses.

Let’s take another example of telling:

‘Hannah was in a foul mood.’

This is a particularly common variation of telling, not showing: showing and telling at the same time. You build a convincing scene, the right atmosphere, convincing dialogue, followed by telling us what the scene has just successfully showed.

Example:

‘Hannah breathed deeply, her piercing eyes still pinning Jim to the wall. She kept her voice low and pressed on every word. “Jim, I know we should try and make an effort for the sake of the kids, but right now I want to rip your head off for being such a complete loser.” She drew breath in and said through gritted teeth, “You’re wasting my time, Jim, get the hell out of my office!” Hannah was in a foul mood.’

I hope this illustration will prove how unnecessary the last sentence is. Just resist adding it!

This kind of telling uncovers a certain lack of belief in the reader – in their capability of comprehension. It is also a sure sign of first-time writing, so stay away from it as much as you can. Any editor will spot it, it is by far the number one weakness of new fiction writing.

Why is showing, not telling important? Because it engages your reader by transporting them into the universe of your characters and thus it enhances the reading experience. Writing witness reports won’t allow your readers to escape from their everyday lives into your extraordinary universe and experience first-hand the feelings and emotions your characters go through.

If you ever doubt that your audience is capable of understanding artistic messages, join a readers’ group or read readers’ reviews of your favourite books.

Telling adverbs, adjectives and phrases

As a tell-tale sign, instances in which you state how a character feels (e.g., he felt scared, he felt happy etc) are always and without a doubt telling, not showing. Never use them in your writing. A reader should be shown how a character feels through what a character does, thinks, his facial expressions and so on and never through plain statements. Also try to avoid adverbs such as obviously, curiously, surprisingly etc, as they are telling adverbs too. Phrases such as to his great delight, against his wish, against all odds etc are also signs of telling, not showing.

Exercise

Open your manuscript and type in the Search box “obviously”.  Reread every instance in which you have used “obviously” and decide whether it is telling, not showing. If it is telling, ditch it and rewrite the fragment, paying particular attention to scene and atmosphere this time, not primarily characterisation. If you haven’t started the editing yet, this is the ideal first step. Once finished with “obviously”, repeat the process with “apparently”, “visibly”, “understandably”, “against his wish”, “he didn’t want that to happen”, “he felt hopeless” etc.

At the end of this exercise, you’ll feel pleased with your result and your manuscript will be one step further on the improvement scale.

More on Style in Self-editing Fiction that Sells (Paperback, ebook, 2014)

Next week’s post: How to add efficient plot devices to move your story forward

About Lorena Goldsmith

Literary consultant at Daniel Goldsmith Associates.
This entry was posted in Style. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Show, don’t tell

  1. djpaterson says:

    Any writer who’s serious about their work must have heard the ‘show not tell’ and avoiding adverbs advice plenty of times. But it’s only when you read a book where both of these snippets have been ignored that you realise just how painful they can make your writing. I’m almost finished a ‘self-pubbed’ (5-star!) novel that I was sent for review, and don’t think there’s a page that doesn’t include tell rather than show and half a dozen adverbs. Horrible.

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