Show Don't Tell (Also uploaded in audio section)
Today we will examine a topic that if ignored could spell disaster for your writing. If you truly want to captivate your audience, then this tool needs to be in your toolbelt. It goes by the name of: Show Don’t Tell. In other words, using detailed and engaging description.
Before we get to that, I want to give a shout out to an author I was working with that I wasn’t able to have on the podcast today. His name is Alan J. Hesse. He writes comics about the environment around us and does so through the adventures of polo the bear. The comics sounded quite intriguing to me, though I must admit that I haven’t read them yet myself. Either way, if you want to learn something but enjoy the process, you might want to give his comics a peek. I’m throwing a link to one of those comics in the show notes if you interested.
Now, without further ado lets jump right in.
I want you to think about this for just a moment. What comes to mind when I say “Show, don’t tell?”
This concept is so very important. I remember when I went through a coaching program with another writer and I was taught this. It seems like it should be quite obvious and realistically I think most writers understand it to one degree or another, but sometimes we either forget to use it, or don’t know as much as we think we do.
As I was going through this program, I wrote a short story for us to pick apart together and the thing I heard over and over was this idea. She kept reading and kept telling me, “Show Don’t Tell.” I got a little annoyed by this, but of course it was my own fault for neglecting the details.
If you were to use a very simple definition for “Show Don’t Tell,” it would likely be exactly that, don’t neglect the details. You are going to make sure people can see what is happening rather than just telling them. We need to be able to show the reader that someone is afraid without actually saying it. We need to show an intense fight scene, rather than just saying the fight was something to behold. The reader should know our characters love someone before they ever think it, or say it out loud. I could go on, but I think that is more than enough.
So, rather than just telling you about this concept, let me show you what I mean. I’m going to give you some examples of telling and how they could be restated into showing.
No one could disagree that John was an old man. This is a perfect example of telling, so let’s get into the detail, and paint a picture the reader can actually see. That could look something like this: What little hair John had left, was thin and wispy, in fact, it looked like a strong gust could blow it all away. His smile lines be told of countless good memories and were only but a few of the wrinkles marring his happy countenance. Despite these, John’s most prominent features were his eyes and hands. John’s blue eyes spoke of wisdom that could only come with experience. There was a maturity there that no child could ever hope to possess. As for his hands, they were rough and gnarled like the ancient roots of an old oak tree. The arthritis had not been kind, making it difficult for John to carry his walking cane with those bent fingers.
You could pick out different features and describe them in different ways than I did, of course, but regardless I hope you understand what I am trying to purvey here. Just to beat the dead horse a few more times, let me give you two more examples.
Her clothes were ragged, not even looking fit for a person to wear. This could be enhanced to something like: The moth eaten clothes were all but falling apart, pasty white skin easily visible through holes in the faded red shirt. Threads hung from the sleeves, tempting anyone who saw to pull one and unravel the sleeves entirely. Presented to a buyer, someone would likely have to pay to get the washed out clothing off their hands, instead of the other way around.
And here’s one last example. Neena hid behind the sacks of wheat, terrified she would be found by the man who chased her. This could be changed to something like: As Nina hid behind the sacks of wheat she couldn’t stop shaking. Not only that but Neena’s heart was beating so loudly that she thought her pursuer would hear the pounding from a dozen steps away. She could not be found, she couldn’t. Just imagining what would transpire if she were, made tears begin trickling down her cheeks. She wrapped her arms around herself. It took every ounce of self control she had to keep from running, which would most definitely alert the one who hunted her.
It truly is important to show rather than tell the reader what is happening. But I don’t want you to be daunted or misunderstand, so I do want to point some things out. First, I’m not saying you can never say what emotions your characters are feeling or give simple description of something, in fact, sometimes a short description can be very effective. What I am saying is that the more we show, the more often we use engaging detail, the more our readers will be sucked into the pages of our books.
The second thing I would like to point out that has helped me a lot is timing. What I mean by this is that it can be a lot easier to write whatever comes to mind and then later come back and do some editing. Maybe the first draft of your book has very few engaging details and that is fine. If you get your idea across, then later you can come back and enhance it. If you try too hard to make things perfect the first time, you may just never finish the book.
So, in conclusion, make sure to ‘show’ your readers what is happening. Captivate them with the powerful engaging detail that I know you are more than capable of creating. There is a story inside of you that the world needs to hear. A story that no one else can write. I know you have it inside of you and I’m sure you will do magnificently.