5 Things to know about Show not Tell

Show

Like most new writers, the first time I read about Show not Tell, I didn’t have any idea what it meant, let alone know how to incorporate it into my writing. It didn’t help that many websites didn’t give examples of what Showing actually looked like.

Finally, after reading numerous posts, the penny dropped. This post describes the top 5 things I have learned as I’ve gone along.

  1. Write what you can see

This was a ‘penny dropping’ moment. The way it was brought home to me was to imagine you’re describing a scene from a film. Develop an image of what’s happening in your head and describe it. For example, if the character in the scene is angry (the Tell), describe what you see. If the characters alone, you may see them walking restlessly around the room, their face red, thumping one hand into the palm of the other or slamming their fist on the table. If they have company you may hear shouting, see them stabbing the air with their index finger; you may see one character pin the other against the wall or even hit them. There are so many actions you can see and describe once you’ve built the picture in your head, don’t leave it all to the imagination of the reader.

  1. Don’t forget the other senses

We live in a very visual world, but the other four senses shouldn’t be ignored. For example, imagine something as minor as taking a sip of whiskey. Your character may enjoy the burn of the liquid as it slides down his gullet; alternatively they may cough and splutter as soon as it hits the back of their throat. They could raise the glass to their lips but the smell might make them heave. Create the picture. Is there any noise in the background the reader should be aware of or is it silent? What’s the significance of this? Adding the extra pieces of detail can say a lot about you protagonist and the situation they find themselves in. 

  1. Get into Character

As you imagine the scene in your head put yourself in the position of the POV character. This maybe easier said than done, depending on how much you can relate to your character, but you need to work out how that person feels. Imagine yourself in the situation they find themselves in. How you would react? Would your character, with their different personality traits, respond in the same way? If not, how would they differ.

Basing your protagonist on your own beliefs, ideals or life story is probably the easiest way to do this. You know how you would react to a given situation and so it should be relatively straightforward to describe how you feel.

If you are working with a character that is quite unlike you, however, or if they are in a situation you have never encountered, what then?

Use the internet. Find out if anyone has described a similar situation from a real life perspective. How did they feel? As an alternative, you could use ideas from other works of fiction, but I would always check how realistic the writing is.

Switching from Telling to Showing

During a recent edit of my WIP, I can across the phrase “she panicked”, a Tell phrase if ever there was one. It was from a scene where the protagonist had fallen into some water and was fighting for her life, something I’m glad to say I have no experience of. Looking back at my first draft you can see it lacks depth and substance:

1st Draft:

She went to step back but stumbled, lost her footing and tumbled rapidly back down the bank. At the bottom she realised she was going too quickly to stop and she continued across the towpath and plunged straight into the water. She had never learnt to swim and her heavy skirts pulled her down under the water; in her panic she thrashed her arms about her until she was too exhausted to continue.

It was clear that I needed something more realistic and engaging and so I read a number of articles about how people feel during a panic attack. There were several first-person articles giving a lot of detail (which was very helpful) but I also wanted to know what happens when people are drowning. There was less on this, but combining everything together I tried to visualise the scene before I went for the re-write:

Latest version:

She hadn’t gone far when she lost her footing and fell, her body crumpling and hitting the hard edges of the steps as she did. By the time she reached the towpath she was travelling too quickly to stop and plunged into the canal. She had never learnt to swim and the shock of the icy water in her nose and mouth paralysed her limbs and forced her under the surface. She emerged moments later and gasped for air but before her lungs were satisfied the water took her again. Her heart and chest felt as if they would explode as she struggled to break the surface, desperate for another breathe, but there was so little time. She couldn’t breathe. She pushed her arms down again but they were numb; all she could feel was the pounding of her heart as it beat, faster, faster. She had to fight, to give herself time. She couldn’t stop; she needed to breathe. Her head was throbbing now; the blood was fighting to escape. She needed to breathe. Why wouldn’t her body respond? She surfaced again and gasped for air. There was so little time.

It goes on for another couple of sentences, but I hope the latest version conveys the greater sense of urgency and panic than the initial text. It isn’t the final version yet so let me know what you think.

  1. Be specific

This follows on from everything above, but to have the most impact, give as many details as you can without losing energy and boring the reader. Describe the thought processes and subtleties of the scene; include feelings (e.g. heart pounding, vision blackening) along with the physical actions. Make it such that the reader can see the scene as clearly as if they were watching the movie.

  1. Increase Word Count

This is a double edge sword depending on the length of your novel. It takes a lot more words to Show rather than Tell. For example, the word count for the scene above in the first draft was 74, whereas in the latest version (incorporating the sentences I excluded from the example) it’s coming in at 214 words. This can be great news if your novel is a little on the short side, just go back and check if there are any Tells that could be Shows. It could make all the difference.

Conversely, if your novel is already on the long side remember that it is acceptable and probably preferable to Tell parts of the story, particularly if they are in linking scenes. Just be mindful of when and why you use each and never settle for a Tell just because it is the easier option.

 

The Ambition & Destiny Trilogy, a compelling family saga of love, loss and betrayal set against the backdrop of Victorian England.

If you want to find out more, visit my website here.

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About Val McBeath

Born and raised in Liverpool (UK), I live in Cheshire with husband, youngest daughter, and cat. In addition to family history, interests include rock music and Liverpool Football Club. Prior to writing, I trained as a scientist and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years. In 2012, I set up my own consultancy business and now split my time between business and writing.
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