I’m b-a-a-a-ack! And rather than drag things out, I’m just going to pick up where I left off. In my last post, I explained why telling is usually not the best way to go and why showing is preferred. Now we're going to talk about applying this information—how to find those pesky telling parts and show them instead.
How Do I Identify Telling in my own Writing?
1. Look for emotional words: angry, sad, terrified, jealous. In most cases, when these words are written out, they've been used to tell the reader how a character feels instead of showing the emotion.
2. Be conscious of places where something has been explained. In my writing, this is almost always a short sentence that gives a concise summary. Looking at your writing in this way takes practice; when Angela and I crit each others' work, we're always reminding each other to RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain)—a term we unapologetically stole from Browne & King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It may take time, but when you edit with an eye for places where things have been explained, you’ll start to recognize those spots in your writing.
3. Check longer narrative passages to see if something is being told rather than shown. This usually happens when an author is explaining a unique element that the reader is unfamiliar with (such as in sci-fi or fantasy), or when giving background information that affects the current story.
How Do I Show Instead of Tell?
Once you identify the telling places in your story, rewrite them so the information is shown:
1. Try to get your information across within the context of the present-time story. Instead of stopping to explain that a character has issues with her father, show their dysfunction over breakfast or a heated phone call. This will show the reader that the two characters don't get along without you having to say it and without interrupting the flow of the story.
2. Use sensory details to draw the reader in. For example: Nerien ran down the hall, his feet stinging as they struck the cold stone floor. In the dark, he misjudged the stairway and jammed his toes into the bottom step. Glass shattered in the darkness above. He barely heard it over Ma, screaming for him now. He hurtled out of the stairway and into her room. Here, I could have simply said that he ran upstairs. But I wanted the reader to be sucked in, to feel his fear and take the journey with him. Note the details that involve the reader's senses: the cold floor, his toes jamming into the step, shattering glass, screaming. Whenever possible, use sensory descriptors to make the scene come alive for the reader.
3. Use specific words that lend themselves to the exact mood you're trying to set. In the above example, glass didn't break, it shattered; Nerien didn't enter the room, he hurtled into it; his feet didn't hurt, they stung.
4. Include comparisons that are specific to the character. In the earlier example of Dara on the bridge, the branch parallels Dara's feeling of being trapped and choking. The bridge and river are everyday elements in Dara's life, specific to her. Find the comparisons that are specific to your character and they'll be believable to the reader.
Granted, there are times when telling is appropriate, like when you need to state something without going into great detail—something that maybe needs to be said but isn't of monumental importance to the story. Telling can also be used for effect: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. And of course, if your character's voice calls for short, snappy, telling sentences, then by all means, tell away. Just be sure that if you do choose not to show, you've got a solid reason for doing so.
So there you have it. Show-Don’t-Tell, in a nutshell. It may sound abstract and vague at first, but the more you study and search out those spots in your writing, the easier it will get. Need more resources? Check out Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne & King) and The First Five Pages (Lukeman). Keep at it, and happy writing!
A big thank you to Becca from me at Wendy's Writing Now and all my blog readers.
Becca Puglisi is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with 75 different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. The Emotion Thesaurus is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Smashwords, and the PDF can be purchased directly from her blog.