Show v.s. Tell
This is one of the most important parts to any good writing, but it is also a challenging bit to teach and learn. Once you get it, it comes so naturally you hardly bat an eye, but until then it can be such a struggle. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this.
What is it?
Well, why don't we just jump right in.
"John is angry and cold."
What does this sentence do for you? Does it give you an image of John? Does it make you interested in him and what happens to him? I should think not... It is just a very detached and simple statement. Dull to read. When you write a book like this, you aren't really writing anything more than a list of factual statements. Fun stuff, right? Wrong.
But what if I expand this simple sentence to a paragraph? And what if I wrote it like this...
"John tightens his brother’s red scarf around his neck and quickly shoves his hands back into his pockets. At the thought of his brother, almost without him realizing it, he balls his hands up into fists and grits his teeth. Calm down. With a sigh, he shivers and watches the swirl of frozen air spill from his mouth like smoke."
Does that paint you a picture? Do you see John now?
You’ll notice in this bit of writing that the words "cold" and "angry" don’t come up a single time, nor do any of their synonyms. But are you still able to discern that John is cold and angry? Yes; by the way he acts and thinks. And, on top of that, you are far more curious… You want to know why John is angry when he thinks of his brother. You are wondering why he is wearing his brother’s scarf. You want to know why he is in the cold. What is he doing?
See how this works?
Here are a few pointers to help you show, not tell...
1: Describe the five senses
Sight is important; but it’s not the only sense you have. You can write a story using mostly sight… But that could get boring fast. You want more than that. Immerse your reader. Describe the tingle going up your character’s spine as skin meets a frigid metal bar. Share his expression at the scent of burning food or his thoughts as he tastes it. Give them fingernails on a chalkboard and dogs barking and children screaming with laughter. Life is so much more than seeing.
2: Cut Back On Telling Verbs
Thought, wondered, heard, saw, smelled. Using these, a lot if times, is not even necessary. Putting your character’s direct thoughts in italics and leaving it at that is usually more than enough. "I heard the sound of breaking glass." is a dull statement, but when you write "The glass shattered and spilled onto the ground, ringing out as it met the concrete." you suddenly open up a whole new world.
3: Use Rich Language
Avoid using adjectives and adverbs with weak nouns and verbs to make them stronger… Instead, use a strong verb/noun right off the bat. (i.e. writing "fled" instead of "ran frantically" or "chided" instead of "gently reproved.")
4: Cut Back On Dialogue Tags
It is very annoying to constantly be stating who said what and when. Don’t be that kind of writer. When it’s obvious who is speaking, don’t tell the readers who is speaking.
5: Do Not State Emotions
Just like the paragraph we wrote about John… Using body language and thoughts, I was able to show you that John was angry and cold, along with making you curious to learn more about it. This can be applied to most emotion. A fearful character might begin breathing hard or talking fast. A grieving character might tear up suddenly at the mention of a lost loved one.
Don’t get me wrong! There are plenty of times when telling is appropriate (necessary, even). It is generally acceptable to tell a little when you are connecting scenes, including backstory, or trying to be concise. But, for the most part, stick to showing. :)
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