How to show, not tell (3 simple ways to fix your writing)

How to show, not tell (3 simple ways to fix your writing)

What does it mean when you get feedback on your writing or advice to “show don’t tell”? I get this question a lot but didn’t have a clear answer until now. It’s hard to teach without showing exactly how to do it with writing examples… but I actually came up with three great tricks recently to identify and remove “telling” from your writing. This video also explains the difference and why “showing” is definitely better.

Are you showing or telling?

#1: “Who is saying this?” is the narrator speaking? The information should be present in the scene, and hopefully in away that’s relevant for the main character’s current state of mind or actions. If you’re supplying extra information that’s not in the scene, then the characters are there paused, which feels inorganic and slows the pacing.

#2: What are the characters doing right now?
Is anything happening, or is the narrator or author speaking directly to readers while the characters are frozen in time, waiting for you to fill in the blanks?

#3 What does this look like?
Showing vs. Telling is often about description or backstory, both of which are complex and there’s a “Best Way” to do it. With description especially, you want to show what’s there, in the scene – rather than referring to a symbolic representation of the scene. You want the information conveyed through the scene and action, not supplied by the narrator.

It’s true that adverbs are often attacked, but that’s because they can be a lazy way to communicate information without doing the work of presenting it in action.

“She sighed, sadly.” You’re telling us how she sighed; but this is, as if YOU witnessed the scene and are communicating it to us, based on your impression. Why do YOU think she looks sad? How did you come to that judgment? Or have you just decided that she needs to be sad and are telling us this. Is she really sad? How do we know? What does this actually look like?

Watch the full video to go much deeper into these three tips, or check out where I have more writing tips!

Show Don’t Tell Examples

She was a nice girl from the wrong side of town, but she didn’t let it bother her. Whenever she came across someone in need, she tried to help, in her own way, whether directly or indirectly. Maybe it was tossing a few coins into a paper cup; maybe it was just a comforting shoulder and sympathetic ear. Most people ignored her, until they needed her, and few appreciated her quiet charm and inner beauty. Since her mother died 13 years ago, she hadn’t had much time to polish her social graces, and the few friends she had were almost as unimpressive as she was.

(This is all descriptive and vague: telling readers about a girl without actually showing anything. It’s narration, not active scene. it isn’t terrible, but you feel like you’re listening to the author’s appreciation, he’s trying to get you to accept his value judgment, without giving you the chance to know her yourself, so it feels distant). We get very little description other than “wrong side of town” so there is nothing to picture here).

Abby slammed the door with her foot and tugged on her jacket as she hobbled down the stairs, still slipping into her left boot and trying not to lose her grip on her coffee. She drained the mug at the bottom of the stairs and set it on top of the rusty mailbox. She’d got it for 25cents at a garage sale, and though the inspirational adage “hustle & grind” pleased her ironically, she wouldn’t be too upset if it went missing.

The letter box was empty except for colorful ads for clothes she’d never want, even if she could afford them, and bills she knew she could ignore for another two weeks at least. Rent, on the other hand…

“Heading out?” a voice called through the screen door of the first floor flat. Tabitha’s silhouette filled the narrow doorway, bulky and the gray hair of her curlers rising like a nest of serpents.

“Big interview today,” Abby said. “Cash flow is a bit tight but don’t worry, I’ll have it soon. In the meantime, I’ll grab you and Buster some snacks.” Tabitha’s pit bull whined at his name.

Abby pushed through the green door with chipped paint, zipping up her leather jacket and straightening her stocking cap over her dark curls. It was chilly, and the gray clouds were pierced only a handful of birds and the scrawny branches of the oak tree in Tabitha’s backyard. She frowned at the tire hanging from a bit of frayed rope. Memories tugged at the edge of her memory, but she brushed them away. Her mom wasn’t her to give her a boost, and games were for children.

(OK not great, but this is unpolished. Where’s the narrator? Who is making judgments about this scene and character? Hopefully, nowhere. If Abby is nice – show it. If she’s on the wrong side of town, show it.

Character description and scene description, especially in the beginning, should be robust.

And if I was editing this second passage, I would say: “you’re trying to do too much, too soon. There’s too much background info. She shouldn’t reflect on her dead mother until it becomes significant, a few chapters later. That’s too deep, too soon. You don’t share your secrets with strangers; and people don’t randomly think about sad things everyday. They have to be prompted or brought up, through an unexpected reminder or circumstance. Focus on the conflict now, what she’s trying to do today and what stops her… she needs more active goals and events to show momentum; backstory has no momentum because it’s included. Start off with a big push of action, let that momentum carry awhile, reveal more depth later.”

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