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Showing Vs. Telling
by Maxwell Drake
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
– Auton Chekhov, 1860 – 1904.
Showing vs. telling is one of the hardest things to master as a creative writer. At least, that is what I was told. To me, it has never been that hard of a subject to grasp. Where I do feel the difficulty lies is in the teaching. For, if you are trying to learn the subject, and someone tells you, “You are telly. Be more showy.” That helps you out about as much as trying to teach you how to make alligator skin boots by dropping you into a pit full of alligators.
So, to that end, I created the following seven steps to help writers try and understand the concepts behind how to be more showy. Now, these steps are not all there is to this subject. But, they are a great start. If you can grasp the following, and apply it to your writing, you will be well on your way to being less telly.
Step One: Use Stronger Verbs.
The English language was created by steeling from most of the western languages. It is the reason we have so many words that all mean basically the same thing. So, take advantage of this. Because, your choice of verbs can dramatically change the feel of your sentences. Case in point:
The cowboy put his gun back into its holster and walked from the room.
Not a bad sentence. However, “put” and “walked” are very weak verbs. If we just change these two words:
The cowboy slammed his gun back into its holster and stormed from the room.
We now have a different cowboy. Or:
The cowboy slipped his gun back into its holster and tiptoed from the room.
Again, we have simply changed the two verbs. Yet the sentence is dynamically changed.
Step Two: Let the reader feel it. Don’t tell the reader what to feel.
Emotions are the next big area most writers can improve. If you are telling the reader how the character feels, you are not showing.
The monster lunged unexpectantly at John and he was scared.
Going back to Step One, “scared” is a weak verb. If we change that to “terrified,” we have a stronger sentence. Plus, “was” is a weak linking verb. So,
The monster lunged unexpectantly at John and he felt terrified.
Still, we are simply telling the read what John is feeling – terrified. Hence, it is a tell. To show this emotion, we want to be more descriptive.
When the monster lunged unexpectantly at John, terror washed over him and the blood drained from his face.
Step Three: Make the reader witness the action, don’t tell them what is happening.
The same thing goes for action. If you are telling the reader what is happening, or what to feel, you are telling. So, in our above example, telling the reader the monster “lunged unexpectantly” is telling the reader that the event was unexpected.
John took another step back, and again the monster did not move. Letting out a shuddered breath, he forced himself to calm down. I just need to keep moving away and I’ll be fine, he thought. Shock stabbed into him as the creature lunged, claws bared.
Step Four: Let the reader see it, don’t tell them what they see.
Another thing that showing does is eliminate ambiguity. You can write, There was an old shack sitting in the back yard. But, do you see the same shack as I do? Probably not. Instead, by writing the following, I now force you to see what I see.
An old shack slumped in the backyard like a broken weed, its pale white paint faded and flaking. The door hung limp on its hinges, swinging in the gentle breeze.
Step Five: Let the reader hear how things are said, don’t tell them what they hear.
Dialogue is a powerful writing tool if used correctly. You can really convey a lot with very little. Let the spoken words convey the feelings of the speaker.
“We have to get out of here!” John said, fearing for their lives.
“If we don’t leave now, they are going to kill us!” John said.
Also, don’t waste what can be shown by telling in your speech tags.
“Let’s go,” John said anxiously.
“Let’s go,” John said, trying to glance in all directions at once.
Step Six: Kill your adverbs!
Adverbs, especially ly adverbs, are overused in today’s writing. They are lazy, telly, and most of the time, redundant.
Keeping low, John quickly raced to the other side of the room.
- There is no way to race other than quickly. Removing the “quickly” from the sentence does not change the sentence one bit.
Keeping low, John raced to the other side of the room.
When the plane tilted sideways, John was thrown completely out the open door.
- Really? Is there a chance that some reader will read this sentence and wonder if John left a leg or an arm inside the plane when he was thrown out? I doubt it.
When the plane tilted sideways, John was thrown out the open door.
Look for adverbs within your manuscript that you can cut without changing the sentence.
Not wanting to sound totally stupid, John completely changed what he was about to say.
Not wanting to sound stupid, John changed what he was about to say.
Do you really need the “totally” or the “completely”? Do they add to the story? Strengthen the sentence? No. They just add words, and weak ones at that.
Knowing the boy was exceptionally smart, John expected no less from him.
Knowing the boy was smart, John expected no less from him.
Again, the “exceptionally” is not needed. If you want to stress the brains of the boy, use a stronger verb! This will stress the intelligence of the boy, while not falling back on a weak writing style.
Knowing the boy was brilliant, John expected no less from him.
Step Seven: It is O.K. to tell sometimes.
Keep in mind, writing is a balancing act. A novel that is one big “show” might be the worst thing ever written. There are times when you may need to tell.
If one character is telling another something the reader has already read, you would not want to “show” the character telling the tale again. Using a sentence like: “Then, John told Mary of the monster attack.” will suffice and move the story forward.
If the reader needs to know something, but not the details, such as moving the characters from one place to another: “They then traveled to Chicago.” If nothing happens during the trip, don’t waste a chapter showing me the characters getting on the train, traveling across country, and arriving in Chicago. Just get me there and continue with the story.
Have any questions or comments? Chat at me on facebook/Maxwell-Alexander-Drake or on Twitter @MaxwellADrake.
For more information about me, or to see the class notes from this class, or my others, please visit my official website at www.maxwellalexanderdrake.com.