How many times have you been told, “show, don’t tell,” when people have read your work? Yeah, me too. It’s something most of us know about but often forget or just don’t know quite how to do it. It helps to know how to recognise each of them first.
Joe was a tall man, with greying hair and a habit of chewing his lip when nervous.
It was cold, at least minus ten and a thick layer of ice covered the lake.
Sophie walked the streets looking for David but couldn’t find him anywhere.
The spaceship came into land and everyone was glad the long journey was over.
He looked like a businessman with his leather briefcase.
Joe towered a good head and shoulders over her, forcing her to crane her neck to look at him. She longed to run her fingers through his black curls and thought the greying threads at his temples gave him a distinguished air. A slight smile fluttered at the corners of his mouth as he chewed his bottom lip like a frightened child.
His breath turned to ice, making rainbow coloured diamond dust that fluttered away in the light morning breeze. Half a dozen brave ducks padded across the frozen lake and he wondered why their feet never stuck the ice. The forecast said it would be at least minus ten by dawn and as he drew his scarf tighter around his neck, he knew it was colder still.
The rapidly darkening sky brought a mood of gloom that settled over the city and Sophie shivered. The shadows cast by the newly lit street lamps leapt menacingly, every one a serial killer waiting to pounce as she crept past. Music blared from bars, drunken crowds gawked and several wolf whistles reached her ears. Walking these same streets in the light of day brought no such terrors for Sophie and she wondered at the power light has over the emotions. The early afternoon sun had still been warm when she set out to search for David, but now, in the threatening darkness and with blisters on her feet that bit painfully at every step, she turned for home alone.
The still calm of the morning was rent as the roar of engines approached. Looking up, he saw the spaceship approach and smiled with relief. Dust flew in whirling turmoil, stinging his eyes and coating his robe as the ship began its final descent. Leaves, wrenched from the ancient oaks that lined the landing strip, flew like a cloud of butterflies and covered the ground in a lush green carpet. The journey has been arduous, the mysterious engine failure almost costing the crew their lives and their late but safe arrival was reason for celebration.
He strode along the street, the understated but elegant grey suit moving with him as if moulded around his body rather than simply being manufactured. The white shirt was plain and devoid of extraneous decoration, as was his silk tie and matching pocket-handkerchief. Quality speaks for itself and needs no assistance from fussy details, he would always say when standing for a fitting with his tailor. The water buffalo hide briefcase swung silently as he walked and he remembered his father giving him his first briefcase on his first day at the company. “Only cheap leather creaks,” the old man said.
See the difference? Not only do we know more about the characters and settings, but they come alive for us. We are really there when we read the ‘show’ examples. The ‘tell’ examples give us the information but we can’t connect with it on an emotional level and that’s what you want your readers to do.
Show us the character, show us his emotions, his feelings, his physical state. Bring the environment alive. Don’t just give us a photo, take us there.
When you show rather than tell, your writing will often be longer too, which is always good for word count, but don’t let that be a reason for unnecessary waffle. If you try to show everything in such detail, it becomes annoying and people will get bored waiting for the action. There is often benefit in telling rather than showing, to get to the action for instance, when your character is going from A to B. We know he needs to get from home to the hospital, but unless something along the way is important, just tell us he goes to the hospital. Sometimes you need to cover ground quickly, ground that would harm the story if you left it out altogether and in such cases, tell us about it and move on.
You can also avoid the ‘adverb/adjective’ crime by paying more attention to showing rather than telling. Rather than telling us the old house was spooky, show us the shadows dancing, let us hear the creaky doors and floorboards, let us feel the cobwebs on our skin. How do we react to the dark, the noises? What is our imagination doing? Don’t just tell us the car was racing along the road, give us the wind in our hair, the adrenaline rush, the G-force as we are pressed into our seat. Words like, ‘paranoid,’ ‘sadly,’ ‘grand,’ force us to work harder to bring them to life. I don’t have to work so hard if you show me the shadows leaping and dancing. Let me feel the weight upon my heart and the sting of tears behind my eyes and I will understand. Give me doric columns, marble staircases, and gothic arches and I’m there in your grand hall with you.
Working on showing and telling makes you think about your writing in a new way. It’s good discipline and forces you to think much deeper about not only what you’re writing, but how you’re writing it. It can sometimes feel as if it’s taking away from the purely creative aspect and making it more ‘mathematical’ but it needn’t. Keep in mind that it is not stopping you from being creative, it is allowing you to be even more creative.