“Show what your character is doing, don’t tell!”
Sigh…as a new writer, those words coming from your critique partners, beta readers, or even worse, your editor can be enough to drive you insane. As if deciding to write in the first place wasn’t insane enough! Nevertheless…no matter what genre you write, it’s true.
Having a problem understanding the difference between “Showing” vs. “Telling”? Let me see if I can explain it without anyone blowing a much needed brain cell.
Telling is basically taking a scene, and giving an overwhelming amount of information, such as too much back story (yes, if not written correctly, it can be overkill), or the lack of stimulating visual clues that force your reader to ‘see’ the scene or back drop of what the character is experiencing.
Showing is the opposite. Instead of telling a character’s back story that leads up to a scene, that same information is given by way of dialogue. Another way would be instead of giving clinical descriptions about a location (there were large trees, or it was cold), describe it through the eyes of the character as they see it. What did it look like? (colors and textures) How did it feel (cold, hot, uncomfortable). Using the character’s words (and the handy dandy thesaurus!), it will be much easier to make the change.
Let me give an example. This is from my original manuscript sent to my critique partners. This is a snippet from chapter five. In this version, you see the description I used (it’s been crossed out because it was telling) and replaced by her suggestion which is showing.
I drew in a deep breath and held it for a few second in an effort not wanting her to know how much she was turned me on.
See the difference?
Now the reader will get the full sense of Brian’s physical reaction to holding Ebony in his arms for the first time. His heart was racing with from the excitement of feeling her body pressed against him, that first contact. He made a conscious effort to slow his breathing so he wouldn’t start hyperventilating and have Ebony think something was wrong with him. He wanted to remain cool, calm, and confident, things that he’d addressed earlier in the dialogue between them. If I had spent time writing the scene with those words, there would have been no oomph to the story. It would have all been telling what was going on instead of showing how he felt.
Here’s another example, one off the top of my head that is not in my novel.
Let’s say your character is angry, so angry that he snaps in a moment of rage and punches the wall. As a result, he’s broken his hand. There are two ways to tell this.
“What?” he said, anger in his voice.
Phillip walked around the room knocking every available object off the table. When his path was blocked by the wall, he stopped. Unable to calm down, he reared back as far as possible and throws his fist into the wall. When he pulled back, his knuckled fist was bleeding. He’d broken his hand.
So, here, all of Phillips actions are told to the reader. There’s no need for the reader to visualize what’s happening because it’s like watching a movie. The action is all there. Now, let’s try this in a different way.
“What?” Phillip jumped from the chair where he’d been reclining after a long day of tiring work.
His breath pumped, his fists open and closed as rage filled his very being. Unable to contain his outburst, he searched for any available outlet. The planter, the clock, not even the innocent bottle of water was spared. Within seconds, the floor was littered with debris. His ranting path was cut short by the boundaries of the living room. Without thought, Phillip zeroed in on his new target…then immediately regretted his mindless decision. Blood now stained the wall and pain radiated up us arm. Unable to move his fingers, it was time to seek medical attention.
Whew! A lot more words went into showing a characters action than just telling.
Showing action is much more interesting than telling what is going one. Keeping your readers stuck on paragraph after paragraph of telling will bore them to the point of going to sleep. Without the action in showing to stimulate reader’s imagination, they are in no rush to come back the next day to read more. Let’s face it, captivating the reader’s attention will not only have them read your entire novel, it will have them salivating for your next available work.
Isn’t that what we ALL want?
In a nutshell, the difference between telling and showing is all in the way you say it. Don’t waste time giving long-winded speeches as to why a character is motivated to take action, let them tell it in dialogue when possible. If done while the character is musing…keep it short and sweet, pepper it in the manuscript when necessary. Don’t overdue.
Also, when showing, don’t be afraid to be descriptive, use that thesaurus, and attach it to the top of your head if you have too. The point is, be creative, don’t fall into the habit of using passive words or phrases. Those will slow down your prose and take an action scene into a slow-mo scene that causes your readers to yawn. So will repeating the same tired phrases…such as like, and….oh good grief, that’s a whole new blog. I’ll tackle that one another time.
Until then, I hope you found this information useful! Feel free to drop a line below. As always I love to hear your thoughts, comments, and who doesn’t like a good follow every now and then?