Every writer knows saying, "Show, don't tell." It's drilled into us so often that it becomes a mantra, spinning around in our heads. But even though we know the saying, it doesn't mean we understand how to apply it to our writing. Sarah Anderson had a great way to visualize it.
TELLING is the equivalent of viewing the code from The Matrix.
Lots of information, but it keeps the reader at a distance. It doesn't make them feel like they are INSIDE, riding the waves of emotion, seeing the differences between what's real and what's not.
SHOWING is equivalent of making the reader feel like they are the one inside,
dodging the bullets with Keanu.
The same information is presented, but in a way that it's tangible and emotional to the reader.
The reason showing is so much more compelling than telling is showing is all about emotion. When you show us a scene it allows the reader to be very present in what's happening, which will evoke emotion. In my opinion, EMOTION is what writing and reading are all about. All you have to do to write a good book is to make your reader feel something. Give them something to care about, someone to champion, hope to believe in and something to fight for, and you can't go wrong.
Another aspect that goes along with showing versus telling is pacing. You need to make sure that you're showing the right scenes. You have to know when to give information at a more pulled back angle and when to slow it down and focus on it. If you're showing us things that aren't contributing to effective pacing, you're going to lose your audience.
An easy way to SHOW instead of tell is to… BE SPECIFIC. Being specific with your details will automatically draw your readers in and make your writing more compelling.
Here's an example:
She got on the plane to fly from Virginia to Los Angeles. Kathy was scared during the take off. She was also worried about what Jim would say when she showed up at his door after their fight.
Ok you know something interesting is going on, but it's masked by the way it's written. Let's try again.
"This is the flight to L.A., right?" Kathy asked the man in front of her.
He slung his backpack onto his shoulder and nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
"Just checking," she said and dug through her bag to find the ticket for her seat assignment. "I never fly."
Then man nodded in a polite but uninterested way and shuffled further ahead. Kathy boarded the plane, her shirt still sticking to her from the stress of the security line. She found her seat, got situated and picked at a hangnail while the stewardess went over the safely information.
The engine roared to life and and Kathy scrunched her eyes shut and pushed her head into the safety of the headrest. Her stomach lurched along with the plane's ascent, a single thought overriding all others: What would Jim think when she showed up at his door? In the eight months they'd been wading through the long-distance relationship, she never thought he would cheat.
See the difference? The second example is much more compelling because you feel like you're going through it with Kathy and her stress is tangible.
Here are a couple of red flags to help you spot TELLING in your work:
- Naming an emotion- When you tell the reader that your character is angry, the emotion is immediately limited to whatever your reader thinks of when they are angry. Maybe what you're trying to convey is a little bit of anger, a little bit of frustration, and a dash of shame. Well, you're never going to get all that out of saying "He was angry." You need to express it through words, through the character's body language, through their expressions, through what they're not saying.
"He clenched his jaw and ran a shaky hand through his hair. The way she'd looked at him made the secret burn inside him, threatening to break his resolve. He pounded a fist into the wall, ignoring the sharp bite across his knuckles."
Instead of just saying he's angry, now you can FEEL it along with him.
- Passive Voice- The subject of the sentence is being acted upon instead of doing the action.
"The umbrella was opened by Mark."
Better option: "Mark opened the umbrella.
Look for was + verb (or verbs with -ing endings) in your manuscript as a quick way to identify possible passive voice. Try to use more interesting verbs.
"The park was empty."
Better option: "The park stood empty."
Try not to begin a sentence with "there are," or "there was."
"There are lots of restaurants on the street."
Better option: "Restaurants lined the street."
Use past tense instead of past progressive.
"She was listening."
Better option: "She listened."
Imbed the description of something in an adjective before the noun.
"The soccer field was brand new."
Better option: "The brand new soccer field."
- Weak Verbs Avoid weak verbs. You can do a search and find in your manuscript to see if you have too many in your manuscript. Here's a few examples:
was, sat, saw, ran, looked, put, set, thought, met, kept, got
Make sure if you use these verbs, that you're doing it with intention.
- Adverbs - Adverbs cheapen your writing and can be omitted in most instances for a stronger phrase. Adverbs modify, telling where, why or under what conditions something happens. They often end in -ly so you can do a search and find in your manuscript as a starting ground to identify them.
By replacing adverbs with a stronger verb, your writing will be much more compelling.
"He left quickly."
Better option: "He stormed out."
"He wrote furiously on the page."
Better option: "He scrawled on the page."
Writing this way will take some getting used to. It's tough at first, but with some practice it will save you a lot of editing in the end. As someone who has done A LOT of rewriting and editing … trust me that it's better to learn these rules up front.
I hope these tricks and tips give you a good foundation so that when they say show instead of tell, you not only understand why, but you know how to do it.
Good luck and happy writing!!
(Today's post was contributed by Brooke Hargett)