Mastering Show, Don't Tell

Learning how to show don't tell is a skill that even the most skilled writers struggle with. Showing something in writing involves using dialogue and showing actions to portray the scene of your story, or what that character is doing/looks like, etc. It's preferred to show vs. tell in your novel as you want to encourage your reader's imagination and is often what creates a deeper connection between your story and the reader, thus convincing them to become invested and fans of your story.

Here's an example of show, don't tell:

Instead of saying, "It was a sunny day." You could say, "Colourful flowers softly danced as a whistling wind scurried past. My exposed arms and legs warmed under the heat of the sun and I savoured the coolness of the thick sunscreen I slather onto my skin."

The telling line was actually rather boring and it doesn't make our reader feel much, however, the show paragraph let our reader know that it was a sunny day through their actions and surroundings.

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The Don't's:

Don't use adverbs

What is an adverb? An adverb is a word that describes a verb. A verb is a word used to describe an action, state or occurrence. Here's an example:

"He ate his breakfast quickly."

The word 'quickly' is an adverb as it tells us how he ate (the verb) his breakfast.

It's suggested to restrain from using adverbs when trying to show, not tell, specifically because they distract the reader. You, yourself as the writer, and interfering with the sentence. See an example below.

"Verity walked through the alleyway, slowly." Instead, you could say, "Verity walked through the alleyway, stopping now and then to admire the cloudless blue sky above."

If Verity was in a hurry, she wouldn't stop now and then to admire the sky. With the use of description, I've shown you that Verity was walking slowly, without the placement of the adverb.

Don't use words describing an emotion

Happy, sad, stressed, angry, love, disgust, frustrated - these are all words that describe how someone is feeling. These are prime telling words. See an example below.

"George was sad." This tells us quite simply that George was sad and that's all it really does. It doesn't leave room to imagine much else and it's quite a boring sentence. Instead, you could say something like, "Wet tears rolled down George's cheeks, pooling around his chin. His shoulders slumped and his legs threatened to buckle underneath him."

The second short paragraph shows the reader that George is sad by his body language - which we'll get on to later in this article.

Don't use basic sensory telling words

You should use senses to describe a situation, however, you shouldn't use sensory telling words like smelled, felt, saw, heard or tasted as these are telling words. They're simply telling the reader what your character is smelling. Instead, use visual language and strong verbs. See the below example.

"Kelly smelt all manner of foods, from freshly baked bread to grilled sausages." Whilst the add on text, describing what Kelly smelt, is good, it's best to avoid the 'smelt' part.

Let's try it like this, "The aroma of freshly-baked bread wafted past Kellie's nose, followed by a smoky smell. Sausages."

This shows us that Kellie smelt the bread and sausages but without directly telling the reader so.

The Do's:

Use dialogue

Using dialogue is always a way of showing, rather than telling because the characters talking to one another makes it an action scene through movement, body language, setting interactions, etc.

What also makes dialogue interesting is the way a reader can match up a character to their words. For example, Someone says to a very strong, muscular person, "Are you okay to lift this?". They look at that person dubiously and say, "I think I'll manage."

It's likely that the character is being sarcastic and you're able to recognise this through the dialogue, body language and facial expression. This in itself, shows the reader. You're not directly telling the reader that they're being sarcastic.

Describe body language and facial expressions

Our body language can play a big part in telling others how we think and feel.

For example, slumped shoulders may mean a person is sad or unmotivated. When a character peers down their nose at another, that can tell the reader the type of person they are - the action is often associated with characteristics such as being stuck up or a 'know it all'. An arched eyebrow can tell a reader that a character is surprised or even disappointed.

Using body language and facial expressions is a great way to show the reader how your character is feeling, rather than telling them 'George feels sad'.

Use the senses

As mentioned above, you should be thinking about your character's senses and inputting this within the story. However, as mentioned above, make sure you're not using sensory words but rather describing what the sense is.

Instead of saying 'I heard footsteps,' you could say, 'A loud stomping sounded in the middle of the night, startling me awake.'

Focus on reactions and actions

A way to show a reader something, rather than telling them, is to focus on the reactions and actions of a character. Much like using body language and facial expressions, you can portray that a character is a certain type of person, or feeling a certain way, through what they do or how they react.

For example, if someone is angry they may knock something over or stomp away from the situation. If someone is sad, they may fall to their knees. This doesn't just apply to emotions. If you want to portray that someone is a good person, you could have them help out a child that had fallen over in front of them, or have them walk their neighbour's dog. If you want to show that your antagonist is an evil person, maybe they could push someone over, or kick a cat!

Final thoughts

Remember, it takes time to learn something new. Practice makes perfect.