How many times have you heard people tell you to show not tell when writing?
What does that even mean?
How do you accomplish this?
Why should you use it?
This and many other questions need answering when you are a writer. Why? Because it is actually one of your most valuable tools! This can be the difference between a good novel and a great novel.
In this post we will be looking at the answers to all of these questions along with examples on how to, and how not to, accomplish this.
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What Do We Mean By Show Not Tell?
No, we are not talking about show and tell, the art of taking things, or people, into school to explain it to your peers. This is Show not tell and it is all about how we write.
This pertains most often to how we write our characters feelings. In order to fully immerse a reader we want to show what they are feeling not tell the reader what the character is feeling. Exmaples:
- Person A slams a door instead of it being written “They were angry,”
- Person A paces instead of it being written “They were nervous.”
- Person A falls to their knees instead of it being written ” They were a little more then upset”.
You get the idea.
Bottom Line: Show a characters feelings through their actions not by telling us what they are feeling.
Why You Should Show Not Tell.
It is easy enough to read that someone is angry or bitter or upset but it does not hold the true power of feelings.
A mark of a good writer is when you read a book and know exactly what the characters are feeling without it ever telling you what they are feeling. This is more relatable for us. Stop and think about it. When you are angry do you think I am angry? Do you shout I am angry? Or do you shake with anger? do you get tears of rage? Do you slam things down or throw things? Concentrating on the actions that show anger, reading the actions that show anger, is much more relatable and makes the characters more real to us.
I am sure you can see the benefit of making characters more real. If we see them as real people we are going to get upset when they make a bad decision, we are going to stress out when in a bad situation, we are going to cheer with delight when things go right.
Bottom Line: Show your characters feelings through actions to make them more relatable to the reader to get them emotionally invested in the novel.
How To Show Not Tell.
Here is a pro writing tip that I once heard/found. Not sure when or where, I have a little notebook full of them from all over the place. This is one of those I return to when editing my books:
The words feel/felt are a sure sign that you’re telling instead of showing. If you notice it creeping into your prose, find another way to express the same thing.
Example: He felt like he was going to pass out.
Replace with: The floor seemed to sway under his feet.-A writers notes.
Useful right. It’s a simple as that.
Here’s some exercises for you to try yourself:
- Example: She felt ill with the thought.
- Replace With: Placing a fist to her mouth she looked away and tried not to think about it.
- Example: He could feel the nerves building inside of him.
- Replace With:
- Example: She was angry, more angry then she’d ever been.
- Replace With:
- Example: He didn’t know how to say it so he walked away.
- Replace With:
- Example: She felt terrified by what she was about to do.
- Replace With:
- Example: He felt brave for the first time in his life.
- Replace With:
Some Real-life examples:
Here’s some quotes from a few books that show not tell. pick up your favourite books and look for some more, you can learn from them.
D’Senna shuddered as much as her stiff Arachnia form would permit. “That is not a good thing.”The Chaos Gate – Josepha Sherman
Note: A lesser way of writing this is- D’Senna felt horror at the sudden realisation of what this meant. “That is not a good thing.”
The shudder shows the feeling of fear, horror, dread all at the same time. Despite her not being a human we can relate to this shudder that we get in our spine when things turn dark.
Caina pressed herself against the far wall, heart hammering with dread.Child of the Ghosts – Jonathan Moeller
Note: A lesser way of writing this would have been to say that Caina was scared. But we understand her fear so much more from reading it written in this way. Of course she was going to be scared, there was a stranger in her house with intent to kill, but the heart hammering. Can you remember the last time your heart was hammering? how did it feel? did the memory of that feeling surface as you read the above line?
“I am sorry,” she said. That was it. Just three words and Saad’s world crumbled to the sand. He closed his eyes and, having lost his balance, fell to the floor.Painfully Beautiful – Marium Umar
The death of a loved one can have powerful effects on the body. Having lost his balance could be dizziness, weakness of the limbs, the feeling of a world crashing down around you. Doesn’t it read so much better and with much more feeling when it is written without actually mentioning the feeling?
Work Without Show Not Tell.
I have recently been reading a book that does not follow through on the whole Show not Tell thing. The book has actually done quite well proving that failing to use this step does not completely ruin a book. But it says a lot that at 65% through reading I have no interest in finishing the story.
The book in question had some power. At one point I did indeed place it in a corner and tell it to sit there and think about what it has done. It had the power to irritate. The young ma in the book was, well, a young man. Young men do stupid things… get drunk, joyride, push away friends, kiss girls they shouldn’t.
The writing style was long and descriptive constantly which is not my preferred style BUT as I said before, the book has done well. Try it yourself before you draw a conclusion.
I can not help but wonder, though, if I would have found the players in the novel more realtable if they had used the above tips. All too often I came across sentences like:
- Conner was feeling uncharacteristically shy.
- He felt pretty good.
- “You walk everywhere?” asked Conner. He was tired.
Result. While the book kept my interest for a while, I could not relate to the main players in the story and never finished it.
The story in itself is intriguing and I may one day return to it to find out what was happening to Conner, what the scientists were really after, and if he ever makes up with his dad. Oh, and if Rory get’s what’s coming to him, didn’t like that guy.
ROAN by E.R Barr is the book. I always encourage people to make up there own minds about novels as half the stuff I like I know my mother won’t touch. Half the stuff my mother likes (romance) I won’t touch with a barge pole.
Kelly is an author and blogger who completed her first novel while still in high school.
She is currently a full time writer. Her works include the outlaws series (4 books), The Lady in the Loft collection (Anthologies), Gaming blogs and guides (hired work), travel writing and more.
While Kelly has been writing stories for many years she got her start at online blogging through a free online course. This is what led to her being a full time work from home writer. To this day she states “It’s the best move I ever made.”
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