“Show don’t tell” is a much used phrase, to the point of it having become a bit of a cliche, but one that, when fully understood, has the power to completely transform your writing.
Use these 4 simple steps to understand, implement and perfect the “show don’t tell” technique:
- Avoid summary narrative
- Appeal to the senses with evocative detail
- Balance detail with pace
- Avoid summarising character feelings
1. Avoid Summary Narrative
You know your characters, your setting and the action so well that when you read your own work you can easily visualise it. You feel as though you are right there in the middle of the action. Your “insider” knowledge means you can fill in the gaps easily
- Are your readers getting the same experience?
- Is your writing engaging your readers as much as it could?
- Do they feel as though they are actually a part of the journey they are about to go on through your story world?
More often than not problems occur when the answer to the above three questions is ‘no’. Bringing the reader along for that journey is key to keeping them engaged page after page. Immersing the reader in your story world creates the connection needed for them to feel invested in your characters and your world.
Showing the reader the action as it unfolds and allowing them to truly experience the setting and feel the emotions of the character is key for that investment. And this is where the strength of the “show don’t tell” technique becomes apparent.
One of the biggest culprits behind writing that doesn’t engage is too much “telling” and not enough “showing” to pull the reader in. This is the most frequent problem that our editors come across and bring up in almost every manuscript appraisal report.
In very general terms there are two ways to tell a story, you can either:
- Relate the story to someone in second-hand narrative summary which we refer to as “telling”
- “Show” someone how the story unfolds by directly involving them in the action.
Let’s look at an example:
Many people turned up to the talk and the coffee shop was full.
Juggling my coffee in one hand and cake in the other I dodged elbows and shoulders as I looked around the room for Sam. I spotted him just as he shouted across to me, his voice lost to the noise in the cafe. He was perched on the corner of a table already occupied by another couple.
Both versions of the above sentences tell us the same thing. Version 1 tells us what happened in summary. We are being given no details that fix the happenings to a specific scene. The reader takes a very passive second-hand view of the events. It has been summarised for us. Version 2, on the other hand, shows us what is happening without directly telling us. We are watching the scene unfold and experiencing it with the character. Ultimately it makes us feel as though we are there and part of their journey.
Envisage your writing as “scenes” strung together. Take one of those scenes, read it through and ask yourself these questions:
- Are you watching the scene unfold or are you reading a summary?
- Can you visualise and feel what is happening from the details you have given?
- What would the reader be feeling or experiencing if they were there with your character? Would it be hot and stifling? Would they be getting irritable at the people trampling on their feet? Can you make the reader experience all of this without directly saying it?
By allowing the reader to see and feel you will end up expanding that scene, but if it’s important enough to be included in your novel as a scene than it needs to be given the space to make it work and make it meaningful to the reader.
2. Appeal to the senses with evocative detail
To experience and engage we need detail that will evoke the feeling of being in the middle of the action. This means appealing to the senses and not just the mind.
The room was messy and it looked as though no one had been there in a long time.
We could evoke a more emotional response to the scene:
She shoved at the door, but it had wedged fast. One more shove and it budged a little way. She squeezed through the gap and stepped over the pile of clothes that had been jammed behind it. The musty smell of a room that was in desperate need of fresh air hit her as she picked her way over unopened post, old pizza boxes and half-drunk mugs of vegetation-covered coffee.
Engaging the senses leads to rich evocative descriptions allowing the reader to feel emotionally connected to the scene.
3. Balance detail with pace
Once you have a handle on showing and not telling, the temptation can be to go overboard with description. This is the point where a scene starts to slow unnecessarily and the reader is overwhelmed with information.
The reader needs just enough detail to draw something out of their memories so that they are also doing some of the work.
Because you want to keep your writing tight, the few words of description that you use should be well chosen. Try to avoid weak verbs with strong adverbs and just go straight for strong active verbs.
Choose descriptive words that are strong enough to prompt the reader to draw on their own experiences to fill in the gaps. This is how the reader unwittingly places another little piece of themselves in the scene with your characters.
It may not be a scenario the reader has experienced before, but it may be a smell, a feeling, or sounds that they can identify with and bring to the scene.
4. Avoid summarising character feelings
Once again, we want to experience what the character is feeling rather than being told about it, so that we can fully engage or identify with the character. Your writing should make your reader feel the emotion of the moment, whether it’s fear, anxiety, or joy.
A summary of how the character is feeling removes us one step away from them.
Sam was nervous.
The room suddenly felt very hot, Sam pulled at his collar and wiped at the beads of sweat now forming on his forehead. His mouth was dry and his palms sticky and damp.
We know how sweaty palms feel or how a room can suddenly become stifling when we are under pressure and we can fill in the gaps that he is feeling nervous without directly being told.
This is the part of the technique that writers have most problems with. They don’t have the confidence to believe that their descriptions are strong enough for the reader to fill in the gaps.
Some of the most powerful writing can be the writing that speaks to you through those gaps.
It’s also worth remembering that whilst the reader needs to feel the big emotions, it’s also important to focus on the smaller and more unexpected emotions. More often than not it is these other emotions that lie below the surface that make us feel part of the journey. We, as readers, have become almost desentisised to the big feelings: the fear when the hero faces their worst nightmares, the grief when they experience death. But what about the buried feelings of guilt and relief, excitement and hope?
Dig deeper than the surface ‘big’ emotions and then bring those to the scene. The reader will sit up and take notice when unexpected feelings appear, and at that point, they are no longer a bystander just looking in, they can’t help but be invested and become an active participant.
When to Tell and Not Show
Whilst it is an incredibly important technique to master, it is also one that you need to understand so that you know when you can break the rules. There are certain instances when telling is more effective and we have given a few examples below.
Certain genres such as science fiction or fantasy need a little “telling” to help develop the world, illustrate its rules, laws and norms, and establish context. Setting up the background of a historical fiction novel can also at times lend itself to telling and not showing.
There are instances of pace and rhythm in a novel where “telling” is a respite from back to back action through showing to avoid exhausting the author. Narrative can be an effective way of evening out the pace and rhythm.
In Minor Sub-Plots
Finally, sub-plots, minor characters and minor plots that do have purpose but that don’t need to be dwelled upon can often be summarised with narrative in a “telling” account.
“Show Don’t Tell” is the most frequently repeated phrase by our editors in our manuscript appraisals. We make a point of bringing it up in the reports and annotating specific examples of it on the manuscript because it is such an important technique to master.