Show, Don’t Tell – What Does This Really Mean for a Writer?

I hit send. And waited. My breakfast churned in my stomach. Would they like my idea? My writing?

It was the first time I’d opened the door and allowed a tiny piece of my novel out into the world. Would it be safe there?

The assignment was to rewrite a section of our novel and share it with the instructor and the rest of the Curtis Brown Edit & Pitch Your Novel cohort. I decided to rewrite my first chapter. I’d read the advice to start with your second chapter and to hit the ground running. When I learned about misdirection, I knew I wanted to try it. I had a great idea.

Now I wasn’t so sure. Would it work? Would others understand what I was trying to do?

When the time came to read my feedback from the instructor, I held my breath. She liked it. The misdirection worked! But, she also suggested I try to convey more of a sense of the setting in my first chapter. So, I rewrote and included some elements of my rainforest setting in the first chapter.

In my final report, the course editor told me my inclusion of the setting in the first chapter let the air out of the balloon, so to speak. It interrupted the tension and pace I’d set in the chapter. Now what? I needed to convey a sense of setting, but not interrupt the flow of the writing. How was I supposed to do that?

Feeling discouraged, I read on. The editor then highlighted the way I’d shown setting in the second chapter as my protagonist chased her sister through the rainforest. This time it worked. It enhanced the action. This time I was showing elements of my setting through the character’s eyes and it was moving the story forward. It was then I truly understood what show, don’t tell means in writing.

“Wayna leapt over the buttressed roots of the kapok tree and dashed off into the forest. Nairu raced after her, skirting around trees and through clearings covered with lacy ferns. The thick jungle air pressed against her, making it difficult to breathe. The muted greens and browns of the trees blurred past, broken only by the appearance of bright orange flowers bursting out of heliconia bushes like fiery explosions.”

If you’re still struggling with show, don’t tell like I was, the following examples and ideas may help.

What does show, don’t tell really mean?

“Show, don’t tell is a writing technique in which story and characters are related through sensory details and actions rather than exposition. It fosters a style of writing that’s more immersive for the reader, allowing them to ‘be in the room’ with the characters.” – reedsyblog

As with writing, there are no hard and fast rules. At times, we’ll need to tell in our writing. Jerry Jenkins writes that telling works best “if there’s no value the story/conflict/plot/tension arc by showing some mundane but necessary information.” He cites the example of having to get the character to an important meeting and back before the action happens in this ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ blogpost.

So, when and how should we show in our writing? Here are a few suggestions for showing vs. telling and specific examples to illustrate how they work.

Reveal the setting through your character’s interactions with it

In the example from my middle grade novel, The Stone Seer, I shared images of the rainforest through my protagonist’s eyes as she raced through it. The setting had a purpose. The thick jungle air made it difficult for her to breathe as she ran. It was part of the action. It also conveyed a sense of pace. The greens and browns of the trees blurred past. This helps us see how fast the protagonist is traveling. In this case, the descriptive elements of the setting move the story forward – literally.

I read a brilliant example of this technique as I was reading to my son the other night. It came from the book, Winter Turningin the Wings of Fire series.

Winter, a proud IceWing dragon from the frozen north, must journey to the rainforest, a habitat so different from his usual one that his reactions to it reveal this setting in a funny, engaging way.

“Winter was not surprised to discover that the rainforest was horrifying and awful. For starters, there was something blocking Winter’s view in every direction – giant trees to the left, tangles of vines to the right, a thick canopy of leaves overhead…Moreover, the whole place was overwhelming. Too many bright colors (what self-respecting bird would ever need to have red, yellow, blue, and green feathers? Black and white: those were the only feather colors for a dignified bird). Too many strange noises (what kind of animal howled like that…”

You get the picture. The description is amusing and reveals as much about Winter’s personality as it does the setting.

On my course, we had to look at how each scene moved our story forward. It needed to do so through character, cause (setting something in motion), or conflict. When you set out to write a description, aim to not only create a picture in your reader’s mind, but also to move your story forward.

One way to do this is to reveal your setting through your character’s interactions with it.

Use dialogue to develop character

My novel has a shy, serious 11-year-old protagonist who feels overshadowed by her more confident twin. In my first draft I wrote:

“Nairu was content to stay in the rainforest collecting and cataloguing plants with Nona, her guardian.”

This was boring. This type of writing is more suited to a synopsis rather than a story. My more experienced writer’s group picked up on the obvious telling aspect of my description.

But why not? I thought at the time. I vividly remembered all my Sweet Vally High books starting with a description of the beautiful, blond 16-year-old twins and their shiny red Spyder convertible. We always learned that Jessica was more fun and Elizabeth was the smart, serious twin.

However, as I studied some of my favorite books, I realized my writer’s group was right. The best authors subtly revealed aspects of their character’s personality a little at a time.

I also learned to give my readers more credit. I didn’t need to pound them over the head with my character’s personality in the first chapter. Instead, I needed to drip-feed my character revelations. When we meet a new person in real life, we don’t get to know them all at once. The process happens over time. As the relationship develops, we learn more and more about their motives. The same is true for our characters.

I rewrote my first chapter and tried to convey Nairu’s fear of change through her dialogue with her more adventurous sister, Wayna:

Wayna sighed. “It’s so boring playing in the same place all the time.”

Nairu shook her head. “We just have to be more creative.”

“I wish we lived in a city.”

“The cities are too dangerous,” Nairu said. “What about the boarmen?”

Jerry Jenkins encourages writers to make the reader part of the experience, to give the reader a role – to figure out things about the character.

He shares several great examples in this blog post.

“If your character is tall, your reader can deduce that because you mention others looking up when they talk with him. Or he has to duck to get through a door. Or when posing for a photo, he has to bend his knees to keep his head in proximity of others.”

As I revised my novel, I included elements of my protagonist’s personality in the dialogue between her and her sister.

As you write dialogue ask yourself how your characters talk. Do they use short, punchy sentences or trendy slang? Do they swear for shock value or for revenge against a strict upbringing?

As you write or edit your novel, think about how you can use the dialogue to create realistic, three-dimensional characters.

Create a picture in your reader’s mind

child holding camera

The Simile

As you describe action, consider adding original similes to help your reader experience the situation with his/her senses.

“She clapped her front talons together suddenly, snapping the tension in the room like a bowstring.”- Tui Sutherland, Escaping Peril, wings of Fire

I love this sentence. Not only am I able to picture the dragon clapping her talons together, but I can also hear the action in my mind and feel the mood of the room.

My course reader liked the following sentence I wrote (and it included a simile):

“The tree’s buttressed roots splayed in all directions like giant spider legs.”

Here, I used a simple simile to help my child reader picture a kapok tree in the rainforest.

Use similes sparingly. If you’re writing is littered with them it will be too much. Vary your writing techniques to pack the most punch. You don’t want every sentence to stand out. Some need to blend in with the rest of the story seamlessly.

Personification

Another useful technique for showing and not telling is to use personification. Breathe life into something nonhuman by giving it human characteristics. In The Lost Continent (another book in the Wings of Fire series- you can see what my children are reading right now), Tui Sutherland shows us the struggle of a dragon against a hurricane by pitching the scene as a battle – dragon vs. hurricane.

“The hurricane fought her at every wingbeat, as if it knew she was trying to snatch victims from its claws.”

Sutherland gives the hurricane life to show what a powerful force it was and how much of a struggle the dragon has to survive it.

“The hurricane made one more effort to throw her back into the sea but she fought it with her last reserves until she felt earth beneath her talons.”

This technique inspired me to rewrite a scene where my protagonist climbs a windy mountain. By bringing the icy wind to life and having it try to cast my protagonist off the mountain, the scene is much more exciting than it was in my first draft.

When you want to show, not tell use unique similes and personification to help create a picture of a scene or action in your reader’s mind.

Takeaways

It’s not always helpful when experienced writers and mentors tell you to show, not tell in your writing. It’s hard to figure out exactly what they mean. Having specific techniques and real life examples will help you slowly feel your way forward. I encourage your to read like a writer. Find and write down your favorite passages in books. What makes them so good? Try to apply some of these techniques in your own writing. And have fun!

“All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one work instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with these choices.” – Francine Prose

Spread the love

Leave a Comment