How to Show Instead of Tell in Your Writing

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Most writers know that they’re supposed to show instead of tell, but what exactly does that mean? In a nutshell, it means that rather than directly “telling” something to a reader, you provide a context for the reader to infer the information. The same thing gets conveyed except it’s through some sort of action, making it more interesting and engaging for the reader.

Showing vs. Telling Emotions

Here’s an example of a short scene that relies heavily on telling to convey emotions:

What’s that?” Jake asked curiously.

Nothing,” Kate said, acting suspicious.

It has to be something!” Jake was getting frustrated.

Here is the same scene with showing:

What’s that?” Jake asked, leaning sideways to peek behind her back.

Kate twisted her body, hiding the package behind it, and took a step back. “Nothing,” she said.

It has to be something!” He stomped his foot and crossed his arms across his chest.

Notice how the second scene uses descriptions to bring across the characters’ emotions. The blatant emotion words (curiously, suspicious, frustrated) are not needed, because the action “shows” the audience how the characters are feeling without having to “tell” them.

Showing vs. Telling Concepts

This is an issue that’s common in fantasy and science fiction novels. Writers can have a tendency to “tell” how magical abilities work, what the dystopian government is like, how classes are divided, etc. It’s not always bad to tell these things if there’s no way to show them (Read How to Dump Info Without Info Dumping for more on how to do this effectively), but often telling these things comes across as lazy. For example:

Peter could create balls of energies in his hands. All he had to do was think about what he wanted to attack while moving his hands in a circle and the energy would appear as a glowing and pulsing orb. When it hit his victims, they would fall to their knees in agony.

The above paragraph is all telling. That same concept could be explained to the reader while Peter is putting his ability into use. This allows the reader to ascertain the information while being “shown” an interesting scene. For example:

Peter steadied himself, staring at his enemy. He moved his hands in a circular motion, faster and faster, and an orb of light grew brighter between his palms. It pulsed, like a heartbeat, and shone as bright as the sun. He shoved the ball forward and it rocketed towards his enemy and smashed into his chest. The man collapsed, his knees buckling, and he crumpled into a ball on the ground.

This second example conveys the same information by showing instead of telling. This makes it much more interesting and engaging for the reader.

Still have questions about showing vs. telling? Please put them in the comments or shoot me an email (ellenbrock@keytopservices.com).

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Three Words to Banish From Your Novel (or else)

2163816826_f6f7e8da16Showing instead of telling is a big obstacle for many writers.  Sometimes writers tell instead of show without even realizing it!  Here are three words that insidiously introduce telling into your writing.  Get rid of them (or else)!

Obviously

Examples:

He was obviously in a bad mood.

She obviously had a headache.

It was obvious that she didn’t want to be there.

Clearly

Examples:

He clearly thought she was full of crap.

She was clearly happy about the news.

It was clear she had better things to do.

Indicating

Examples:

He stepped back, indicating that he didn’t want to be that close to her.

She frowned, clearly indicating that she was still upset about their fight.

The man indicated that she should sit down.

Why They Suck

Anytime a writer uses a sentence like the ones above, I want to jump up and down screaming, “Cheater, cheater, cheater!”  All of these sentences are telling rather than showing.  They’re cheap, easy, zero-effort ways of making a point.

Sometimes these words are also used to stretch the point of view (POV).  If your POV character doesn’t have any way of knowing something, you can simply say that it’s clear, obvious, or indicated.  Cheaters!

Stretch yourself as a writer, find ways to show how characters think and feel.  Use expressions, body language, tone of voice.  And sometimes just let your readers breathe!  Give them a chance to draw their own conclusions.  They’re smarter than you think!

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