Writing Quick Tips: Show, Don’t Tell
What separates great or even just good writers from bad ones is the ability to show something to the reader without straight out telling them. Too many writers struggle with telling the readers what’s happening instead of showing them. As a writer, it’s your goal to paint a picture for your readers.
You want them to feel, taste, smell, and experience what’s happening to the characters in your story. Don’t tell them the cheese at the party stinks. Show them the scrunched up faces of party-goers walking past it. Let’s break this down with a few easy to digest examples!
Show don’t tell example 1:
- Nancy walked over to Peter with rage building up inside of her. “How dare you,” she said angrily.
The above sentence isn’t awful, nor is the dialogue tag with the extra description. The problem is, it’s telling the reader what Nancy is feeling. That’s a writing no-no.
What you should do is show her rage building. Let the reader figure out Nancy’s angry on their own without you telling them. Saying she walked over to Peter with rage building up inside of her is lazy writing. Also, throwing in the word angrily isn’t just lazy, it’s damn near blasphemous!
Here’s the better version of this sentence:
- Nancy stomped over to Peter, her feet thumping harder and harder the closer she got to him. “How dare you,” she said, balling her fist up and slamming it against her thigh.
Now, this isn’t amazing, either, but it gets my point across. Instead of telling the reader her rage is building up, you show them through her actions. She stomps instead of walks. Not walks angrily! Stomps. This lets the reader know she’s probably mad, and by showing her stomping harder as she closes in on Peter, the reader will assume he is the cause of her anger.
We also got rid of the pesky adverb and replaced it with action. whenever you can, always try to show action instead of stating a feeling. In this instance we show the reader her balling up her fist—which is a common thing people do when they are mad.
- “I can’t help it,” Dan said meekly and on the verge of tears.
This is another example where you should get rid of the adverb and use your writing ability to show how he feels.
Try these instead:
- “I can’t help it.” Dan’s voice cracked as he spoke to the ground—his long hair shielded the moisture building in his eyes.
- “I can’t help it,” Dan said in a voice almost too soft to hear. A beam of warm sunlight hit his gentle eyes and sparkled with a brilliant sheen.
The first example here is more straight forward. You don’t always want to bog down your writing with unnecessary description. If this scene isn’t entirely important, you can keep it shorter like in this example but still show what Dan is feeling. His voice cracked which shows he’s holding back his emotions. He speaks to the ground instead of the person talking to him which shows his meekness. The part about his hair adds a little bit more to how he’s feeling by showing he doesn’t want the other person to see him cry.
The second example is another way of showing his emotions. The volume of his voice shows how meek or shy he comes across. The light shining in his eyes shows the reader how he may or may not be holding back tears. It leaves his emotions a little more hidden to the reader.
- James was terrified to see the tall, dark trees in front of him. They stunk of death and their branches twisted unnaturally.
This is far too basic of a sentence. It tells the reader exactly what’s happening and doesn’t allow them to create the image themselves.
Try this instead:
- The skeletal trees loomed over the Earth casting the world into endless darkness. James cowered at their base as an acrid wind blew sulfur and death through their bent and twisted branches.
In this example, we go into more details of why the trees are scary without saying they are scary. Instead of saying they are tall, we show they are tall by how they loom over the Earth. We also show James cowering at their base instead of telling the reader he’s scared.
- A shudder passed through James as he reached the trees. He rubbed his damp hands together and tried to calm the rapid pounding in his chest. A gust of wind passed through the thick, gnarled branches and stung his nostrils.
In this example we show more of what James is feeling. The paragraph isn’t perfect, but it shows a level of fear. The best thing to do is combine how he’s feeling with the descriptions that show why the trees are scary.
I’ll leave you with one last bit of advice: you don’t need to show something if it’s unimportant to the story. If someone is late for dinner, and that’s where that part of the story ends, just say they’re late for dinner. You don’t need to show them rushing to get to dinner, the color of the cab they took, the stinky breath of the cab driver, the way the hard wood of the front door hurt their knuckles as they pounded. If these things don’t add to the story and the reader won’t care about them, cut them out.
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