I wrote an article for Writing Bad on the popular “show don’t tell” concept that is thrown at writers left and right. Here is an excerpt of it and the link for the full thing!
Recognizing the Difference Between Showing vs Telling
Firstly, you need to know the difference between showing and telling. Telling is abstract, passive, and takes less involvement from your readers. It ruins the magic and takes the readers out of the story (you don’t want that).
Showing is the opposite. It’s active and solid and creates mental images that bring your story to life. You can bet that the vivid stories that leave you on the edge of your seat are full of showing.
**This does not mean you can’t have any telling in your story. It can be helpful when used right. One of our goals as writers is to show the majority of our stories and keep the telling to a minimum. **
Signs of Telling to Avoid
- Which are basically any “ly” words that you stick on after “he said.” You shouldn’t modify “said” with an adverb. You can read more on that here at the Case Against Adverbs.
You don’t have to avoid them completely, just use super sparingly. You want to show that your character is experiencing an emotion.
Telling: “I hate you,” she said angrily.
Showing: She threw her purse at his head. “I hate you.” Her face was as red as the gloves he wore, which she swatted away when he reached for her. She couldn’t fathom the thought of him touching her again so she turned and slammed open the door.
I didn’t use the adverb in the second example. I didn’t have to say she was angry, it shows through her actions and appearance. A great book to look into for lists of physical and mental reactions of various emotions is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Guide to Character Expression.
Just be wary about throwing ANY of the listed reactions in. A masculine guy isn’t going to throw his hand to his chest when he’s surprised…most of the time. Be true to your character.
- Avoid the verb “to be” and all of its forms- am, is, are, was, was being, will have been, could have been, and so on. I know they remove me from the story quick as a flash. They also put your story in passive tense. You’ll show more than tell if you can work your writing to avoid using “was” or any form of it.
Telling: It was hot in the room as Danny tried to fix the AC.
Showing: Sweat dripped into Danny’s eyes as he tried to loosen the rusted screws on the AC unit. His shirt clung to his back uncomfortably, despite the open window behind him. With a curse, his slick hand lost its grip on the screwdriver and it clattered to the wood floor.
I didn’t use “was” at all. It paints a clearer image of the level of heat too.
You try it. “It was hot.” Rewrite it to avoid using “was” and “hot” completely. SHOW the weather is hot by describing the level of heat and the character’s/setting’s reactions.
- As and –ing. If you start your sentence with those, you’re telling. “As she strode across the room.” Or “Walking across the room.” They are both usable and okay! But…not as good as you can do.
Telling: Walking across the room, he made heads turn.
Showing: His dazzling jade suit caught the lights on the ceiling and threw sparkles across the room. He smiled when people turned to find the source of the lights.
Does the second seem stronger? Provide better imagery? It’s the same for starting sentences with “as”
- Don’t ONLY use “look” and “feel”
They’re okay words; I’m not saying avoid them completely. However, they aren’t very strong and are definite marks of telling. If you are telling the readers that a character feels a certain way or looks a certain way, you’re taking away their imagination.
Telling: He looked happy as he watched his granddaughter.
It works. You let readers know they’re happy. Is it enough though?
Showing: He huffed out a laugh and clapped his son on the back. They watched as the baby stretched in her crib and he had to blink away tears as his heart seemed to swell in his chest. “You did good, boy,” he whispered thickly.
Read the full article here: