As writers, most of us have heard the advice: ‘Show, don’t tell.’ But what does it really mean, and how can we use this guidance to improve our storytelling?
What is it?
‘Show, don’t tell’ is a technique that encourages writers to paint vivid pictures in their readers’ minds rather than simply telling them what’s happening or how characters feel. It invites readers to experience the story firsthand, immersing them in the narrative.
Is It Important?
Yes – for the following reasons:
- Engagement: ‘Show, don’t tell’ engages readers on a deeper level. Instead of being passive observers, they become active participants in your story.
- Emotional Connection: It allows readers to connect better with characters on an emotional level. When you show a character’s emotions through actions, dialogue, and sensory details, readers can empathize and relate more effectively.
- Visual Imagery: It helps create vibrant, memorable scenes. Readers can visualise the settings, characters, and events, making your story more cinematic in their minds.
How to do it
- Use Descriptive Language: Replace statements with descriptive language. Instead of saying, ‘He was nervous,’ try, ‘His hands trembled, and he couldn’t meet her gaze.’
- Show Through Actions: Reveal character traits and emotions through what characters do. For instance, instead of saying, ‘She was generous,’ show her sharing her last meal with a hungry friend.
- Dialogue: Dialogue can be a powerful tool for showing. Let characters’ words and conversations reveal their feelings, motivations, and conflicts.
- Bring in the Senses: Describe sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures to create a multi-sensory experience and immerse your readers in the story.
- Animate the Setting: Rather than stating where the story takes place, show it through the characters’ interactions with the environment. Make the setting a living, breathing part of your narrative.
- Character Thoughts: Avoid stating characters’ feelings outright. Show their thoughts and inner conflicts through internal monologues instead. Readers often look for clues as they read – let them deduce the emotions rather than be told.
- Telling: It was a lovely, sunny day. Showing: The wheatfield below him glowed a rich amber and he wiped a trickle of sweat from his brow.
- Telling: He was angry. Showing: His face turned a shade of crimson, fists clenched, and he slammed the door shut.
- Telling: She was in love. Showing: Every time he spoke, her heart danced, and her laughter filled the room.
Practice Makes Perfect
Like many writing skills, ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a skill that improves with practice. One idea is to start by looking back through some of your writing to identify any areas where you’ve told more than shown. Then rewrite those passages, using the suggestions above
Are you in a writing group (they’re great, by the way!). If so, you could ask others in the group for specific feedback about showing and telling.
You could also study books by your favourite authors to see how they employ ‘Show, don’t tell’ effectively.
‘Show, don’t tell’ isn’t a strict rule but a tool you can select to enhance your storytelling, breathe life into your characters and make your narratives resonate with readers.
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