If you’ve ever cracked open a writing book or had even a single conversation with another writer, then you’ve no doubt come across the age-old axiom, “Show, don’t tell.” But what exactly does it mean?
Simply put, telling occurs when you spoon-feed your readers information you want them to know. It may be efficient and to the point (not to mention helpful in keeping your word count in check), but writing like this is as boring as h-e-double-hockey-sticks.
Showing, on the other hand, conveys the same information but in a way that helps a reader step into the story, both picturing the action and imagining—through the lens of her own experience—what the character is feeling.
Which one do you want to read for 300 pages?
That’s what I thought. So let’s dive right in…
The fastest way to win your reader’s devotion is to tug at her heartstrings (or fill her with wonder, terror, hope, you name it). In lit-geek-speak, this is called “evoking emotion,” which sounds simple enough but may have you wondering, “Okay, but how?”
The most direct way to evoke emotion in your readers is to show them what your characters are feeling. And how do you do this?
The same way people show emotion in real life—through their body language. If you want to show how your characters are feeling, then give your reader physical clues (both internal and external) that help her decipher the characters’ emotions.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of telling vs. showing emotion:
Telling: Jay got excited when his crush, Annie, strolled into the classroom.
Showing: When Annie strolled into the classroom, Jay’s chest flooded with warmth, and a dopey grin spread across his face.
Telling: His dad yelled at him, and Jay felt anxious.
Showing: As his dad’s voice grew in volume, Jay fixed his wide eyes on the dusty floor, his breath trapped in his chest.
The “telling” examples? Wahn-wahn…boring. But the ones that show? These examples, with their physical cues—both internal (his chest flooding with warmth) and external (staring at the floor)—draw readers closer to Jay and help them experience what he’s going through.
When showing emotion in your writing, there are a few tips to keep in mind. Let’s go over those now.
Play the empathy card. Often.
According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is:
: the action of understanding…and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another…without having [them] fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
In other words, empathy is the ability to understand and experience someone else’s emotions or experiences without being told what they are outright. Showing rather than telling helps your readers empathize with your characters, and the power of empathy simply cannot be overstated.
Empathy leads readers to an emotional investment in your characters and their story. And emotionally invested readers are happy readers who will burn the midnight oil to find out what happens next.
Take them on a journey.
Showing emotion in your writing also allows the reader to experience the story from her own frame of reference. As Donald Maass writes in his excellent book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, “What the novelist is doing…is not causing readers to feel as the novelist does, or as his characters do, but rather inducing for each reader a unique emotional journey through a story.”
One reader might recognize Jay’s response to his father’s yelling as anxiety because she’s experienced this feeling herself; another reader might interpret these physical cues as suppressed anger instead. Even if your reader doesn’t interpret the emotions exactly the way you had intended, that’s okay. You want your readers to experience the story in a way that makes sense to them—to go on their own emotional journeys through your words.
Move beyond the eye roll.
There are only so many times your character can shrug or roll his eyes (or perform any other action) before your readers will start to roll their eyes. The best practice when showing emotion is to vary the body language and internal cues you use to convey it.
By far, the most comprehensive and valuable resource I have ever found for showing emotion is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. No matter what emotion you hope to convey, this guide has you covered, featuring an extensive list of physical cues (both internal and external) and mental responses for 130 emotions.
Yes, you read that right…130! I can’t even name 130 emotions. The Emotion Thesaurus is the one writing resource I keep at my fingertips at all times while I’m writing fiction.
Seriously. At. All. Times.
Without it, my characters would do a lot of eye-rolling.
Beyond the Heartstrings
In the battle between showing and telling, showing emotion may be the big dog on the block, but there’s much more to “show, don’t tell” than just emotion. Telling can slip into your writing in ways you may not even be aware of.
So let’s cover the other ways “show, don’t tell” applies to your novel.
Showing in Setting
Another form of telling that many writers don’t recognize as such is when they’re describing the setting of a scene. For instance, “It was a brisk autumn day” is telling. While it’s technically okay to tell little details like this (and sometimes you need to in order to keep your word count in line), it’s often better to use showing because it adds depth to your setting descriptions and helps your reader really step into the story.
As E.L. Doctorow once said, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining but the feeling of being rained upon.”
So instead of writing, “It was a brisk autumn day,” you could write something like this instead:
As she crossed the upper quad, the wind whipped the wrinkled brown leaves around Annie’s feet, and she pulled the zipper on her jacket higher.
These small details—the upper quad, the wind, the wrinkled brown leaves, and the jacket—not only help the reader deduce that this scene takes place on a college campus on a windy and chilly fall day, but they also help her visualize the scene herself. And, in writing, visualization = connection.
Consider also Chekhov’s famous quote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” While telling a reader the moon is shining may describe one element of your scene, it’s certainly not going to evoke any emotion or compel her to keep reading. But showing her the glint of light on broken glass? Those words have an almost haunting quality and bring questions to the reader’s mind. How did the glass get broken? What happened…and what’s going to happen next?
So whenever possible, show your reader your settings rather than just telling them.
Showing in Character Descriptions
The same rule of thumb applies to descriptions of your characters. Suppose your protagonist is six and half feet tall. Even though “Jay was very tall” or “Jay was six foot six” are true statements, they aren’t very eloquent or interesting ways to describe the character.
Instead, you could describe him this way:
Jay towered over the other students in the corridor, his lanky six foot six frame rising like an obelisk in the sea of average Joes.
This sentence actually does double-duty, offering the reader not only a visual image of Jay but also some details about the setting. And it’s certainly more interesting to read than “Jay was very tall.”
Showing the Backstory
Backstory is a slippery widget. (Don’t bother Googling that…I just made it up. LOL) While there may be things in a character’s backstory the reader needs to know, relaying these details—especially when done in long blocks of text—can disrupt the rhythm of the story and jerk readers out of the scene. So providing backstory requires a little bit of finesse.
Simply stating information in the narrative is a form of telling, as in:
Annie attends the medical school at Penn State University. The classes are tougher than she expected, and she’s worried she won’t finish the program.
While readers can forgive small spurts of backstory in the narrative, relaying too much information in this way can make your novel read more like an essay. And no one (except possibly your mother) is going to slog through your 250-page essay.
A good solution to this problem is to relay as much of the backstory as possible in dialogue. Not only do most readers find passages of dialogue more appealing than narrative, but they also increase the white space on the page.
Say who to what?
White space—the area of an artistic work left unmarked—is used by artists (including writers) to emphasize an element of their work and draw the audience’s eye. In a novel, white space is created by dialogue, and studies have shown that pages with more white space catch a reader’s interest far more than long, unbroken passages of text.¹ So using dialogue to provide backstory is a nifty trick.
Oops! Telling in Dialogue
However, even in dialogue, writers sometimes slip into telling. For instance, consider this passage (adapted from an example I used in my recent post, How to Write Riveting Dialogue):
Ron gives his daughter’s shoulders a squeeze. “I’ll be so proud when you graduate from med school at Penn State.”
“I’m worried I won’t graduate,” Annie says.
The line “I’m worried I won’t graduate,” directly tells the reader how Annie feels rather than showing it. Also, not only does this exchange sound awkward, but Annie already knows all of these details—it is her life, after all—so it’s clear that Ron is simply spouting information the writer wants the reader to know.
This a big no-no, my friend. Just like Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz, you never want your reader to see the man (or woman) behind the curtain.
(GIF from tenor.com)
The moment she becomes aware of you, the writer, pulling cords and pushing levers, the beautiful illusion you’ve (hopefully) created in your reader’s mind is shattered.
Instead, you can provide the same information about Annie’s backstory (and her emotions) through showing.
“Hey, doc,” Ron says, giving his daughter’s shoulders a squeeze.
“Dad,” Annie says, rolling her eyes, “I’m not a doctor yet.”
“Minor technicality. I’ll be the proudest father in Happy Valley the day you take the Hippocratic Oath.”
She blows out a shaky breath. “Yeah…if I make it that far.”
This passage provides all the backstory the previous version did but offers it to the reader through hints and clues rather than outright telling. Annie saying she’s not a doctor yet indicates she’s studying to become one. Happy Valley is the well-known nickname for the region of Pennsylvania where Penn State is located, and the Hippocratic Oath is taken at medical school graduations, turning med students into official MD’s. And, finally, Annie’s shaky breath and emphasis on the word “if” clues the reader in to her fear that she won’t be able to finish the program.
This passage of dialogue sounds more natural than the first, provides backstory in a more interesting way, and displays a little bit of both the characters’ personalities and their relationship. Win-win-win.
Do you always show rather than tell?
Considering the emphasis writing books and courses (not to mention this post) place on “show, don’t tell,” you might think the answer is a resounding “yes.” But there actually is a place for telling in your novel.
Telling is necessary when showing would stop the forward momentum of the story. For example, if Jay and Annie go out on a date and the drive to the restaurant has nothing to do with the plot or character development, then the reader doesn’t need (or want) you to show everything that happens along the way.
Do they pass a ’45 Chevy half-ton as they’re pulling away from Annie’s dorm? While vintage pickups are awesome, unless this particular pickup crashes into them or is driven by Annie’s jealous ex-boyfriend…don’t mention it.
Does Jay stop at an ATM on the way? Unless they get robbed or share their first kiss under the flickering fluorescents of the bank’s vestibule…don’t mention it.
Readers love description, but pointless details like these will bring your story to a screeching halt…and worse, bore your readers to tears. So in cases like this, it’s best to just tell the reader, “Jay and Annie drove to the restaurant” (but maybe in a slightly more eloquent way) and then dive straight back into showing again.
And the winner is…
Just kidding. Showing wins. Obviously.
When I (and many other readers) pick up a book, my hope is that it will come alive in my mind—the characters, the settings, the action, the whole shebang. While telling is needed sometimes, showing will make your book come to life for your readers.
Penny for your thoughts…
How have you used showing in your novel? Share a paragraph in the comments below. Or would you like help changing your telling to showing? Type a passage with telling into the comment box and I’ll give it a tweak.
Next week on the blog, I’ll talk all about how and where to find a writing community…and why even die-hard introverts need one! Until then, buckle up, buttercup, and let’s write!
In case you missed it: In last week’s post, Your Easy-Peasy Guide to Theme, I explained all about theme in plain, simple English. (Pinky promise!)
Endnotes (for my lovable science nerd friends):