Some of us may have heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” But what does that really mean for creative writing?
When we write, our goal is to engage the reader. We want them fully immersed in the story, so much so, they feel themselves inserted into the character. The most effective way to achieve this is by showing.
What’s the difference?
Here are some examples of telling:
- “Move it,” the Lt. said impatiently.
- Joseph was scared.
- Tom was angry.
You may be thinking, “What’s wrong with those sentences? They convey what’s needed.” Sure, the sentences express certain things, but they tell you details. Let’s revamp these phrases to show the reader what’s going on.
- “Move it,” the Lt. snapped, as he stared down his nose at the troops in front of him.
- Bob’s heart pounded in his chest, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He broke out in a cold sweat, but he couldn’t move.
- Tom flung his cell phone across the room and pounded his fist on his desk. He swore through his teeth as he stared at the device in pieces on the floor.
So what’s the difference? You tell me. Which versions pull you into the scene? Which versions create images in your mind’s eye?
Think movie, not script.
As writers, we are guiding the reader on a journey through each scene. In order to do that, we need to put them right in the thick of things.
Jake gazed lovingly into Tiffany’s eyes. “You’re so beautiful”
Tiffany held her breath as Jake penetrated her with his gaze. Heat flushed her face as he seemed to look into her.
When he parted his lips to speak, she swallowed hard and tried to keep her balance against the cold, cement wall. “You’re so beautiful.”
When we watch movies, we are almost completely integrated into the scene. Can you imagine watching a movie without a set, with only two actors on screen just talking? Don’t believe me? Here are some lines from a very popular movie.
When I was lying there in the V.A. hospital, with a big hole blown through the middle of my life, I started having these dreams of flying. I was free. Sooner or later though, you always have to wake up.
I may not be much of a horse guy. But I was born to do this.
That is one big damn tree!
Sometimes your whole life boils down to one insane move.
There’s something we gotta do. You’re not gonna like it.
If you’ve watched this movie several times, you may recognize these lines. If not, no need to Google. These snippets are from the movie, Avatar. Now go back and reread them. If you’ve seen the movie, your mind will automatically populate the scenes that go with these words.
Those lines are powerful, but they resonate when you add in the other details. Want your story to stick with readers long after the book is done? You’ve got to show them.
One of the easiest ways to show is through the use of strong verbs.
Kirk walked down the street.
Kirk strutted down the street.
Same number of words, but exchanging walked for strutted gives the reader a better idea of Kirk’s demeanor as he’s moving. What if we swapped out strutted for slunk? Does it change the way we see Kirk’s attitude?
Let the reader experience things for themselves.
Your audience doesn’t want you to tell them how to react or feel as they read, so don’t insult them. Using phrases like, “in a totally unexpected move” or “in a surprising twist” instruct the reader to have the reaction you want.
Since you’ve explained how the action is unexpected and a surprise, the end result is that the reader feels neither of these things. If this was a joke, you’d be guilty of giving away the punchline. Instead, allow the reader to discover the surprise on their own. Focus their attention on the necessary details and allow them to reach the climax on their own.
In a totally unexpected move, John turned off the lights.
Barry stared at the strange shape of the blood spatter on the floor. There were smudge marks he hadn’t noticed during his initial examination earlier in the day. He bent at the waist, and held his gloved hand over the cantaloupe-sized stain. “Someone else has been here.” A single, white fiber in one of the blood drops caught his attention. It was the last thing he saw before the lights went out.
In the first example, I’ve prepared you for the surprise. In the second example, I allowed you to be surprised on your own. If I ended a chapter with the showing section, would you be curious about what happened next?
Details, details, details, but don’t go overboard!
Showing is all about eliminating confusion for the reader. You may have a clear picture in your mind of what’s going on, but the reader isn’t you. You’ll have to elaborate on certain things so everyone else understands what you mean.
The papers looked old.
Okay, old how? Let’s clear this up.
The papers were strewn across the desk, their once vellum hue now yellowed with age. A layer of dust had settled over the pages, but the writing was still visible.
How much is too much? Well, here’s an example of too much.
The papers were strewn across the desk, their once vellum hue now yellowed with age. Small imperfections and barely visible watermarks clued Tim in on the paper weight. They were 110, easily. Recycled bright white wouldn’t look quite as creamy, and wouldn’t crumble around the edges. A layer of dust had settled over the pages, but the writing was still visible.
As you can see above, there’s details, and there’s data dumping. Unless this story is about a paper manufacturer on a mission to solve a paper related mystery, a lot of that information needs to be omitted.
Do we show the entire story? Not at all. If we showed everything, it would be exhausting. Details are vital, but they must be well placed.
So, ready to share your story?