What is ‘show don’t tell’?
I understand there is a rare breed of author out there that actually understands exactly what is meant when they are told ‘show don’t tell’. I’m not one of them. I often struggle with this and it’s a work in progress, but I am comforted by the knowledge that I don’t suffer alone in this ongoing struggle to ‘show’, rather than narrate. It wasn’t until I started this challenge that I began to really look at the problem, and talk to other authors who were struggling with it as well. I am by no means perfect when it comes to exercising this concept within my own work. Like I said, it’s a work in progress. However, I do know a few basics and so I thought I’d share those here.
#1: Can you identify when you’re telling instead of showing?
There is nothing more disheartening than building up the courage to show your story to someone and have them say, ‘It’s really pretty good… except all those places when you show instead of tell.” Especially if you have no idea what they’re talking about. So, what does ‘show don’t tell’ even mean and how can you identify when you’re doing it wrong?
Anton Chekov not only said it best, but he said it in a way I could finally grasp.
Break this quote down and what it teaches you is that every time you write ‘The moon shone’, you are telling. Never say ‘The moon shone over the city’ when you can say ‘Eerie silver-white moonlight lit the wet city streets, making the puddles glisten and the shadows cast by crates, cars and boxes that much darker.’ Showing deepens the mood of your scene. Telling is just… there. Why say ‘It was windy’ when you could say ‘A whispering breeze tugged at the folds of her skirt and played in the auburn curls of her hair’? Or, ‘Dry withered leaves shivered in the tree tops, letting loose their clawing branches to rain tumbling down across the lawn.’
#2: Feel/Felt is always telling when you use it to expression emotion.
When I hit the end of every first draft, the first thing I do is a Find and Replace, searching up words I tend to overuse and this is also where I start looking for feel and felt. If it’s not talking about sensation, find another way to say it.
#3 Okay, it took me a LONG time to get a grip on this. So, on the off chance that someone else also needs another couple examples, here you go. These are a few ways to SHOW emotion, rather than to TELL it.
#4 The magic of body language.
Body language can say everything if you use it right. Admittedly, it does require a bit more thought than simply saying, ‘Bob was sad.’
#5 Use your senses.
When it comes to showing how your characters are feeling, the senses are your best friends. Stick with one or two. It shouldn’t take paragraphs to describe an emotion. If you’re using more than a sentence or two, you need to trim it down. Also, if you use the same senses each and every time, you lose some of the descriptive depth you’re trying to build. So mix it up. Balance means using as many as you can in various ways, without your WIP reading like your going down… well, this list.
For something that took me years to grasp, it literally comes down to one line: If the emotion is the descriptor, chances are you’re telling. If the senses are the descriptor, that’s showing and that’s what you want.