Show vs. Tell: Reinventing Your Scene
Hello WriteOnCon 2018! I’m so happy to be a guest blogger today!
As some of you might know, at the first 2010 WriteOnCon, I was unagented and participated in the forums, looking for that perfect match. I signed with my first agent in February 2011, and participated in subsequent forums to give and get critique. I was and continue to be amazed by the organizers and how much time and energy goes into the project. As someone who has been involved in planning “live” conferences, I can tell you there’s no less work involved in planning a virtual one.
Thank you to the organizers for inviting me back this year!
I’m often asked to present my workshop on the differences between “showing” in your writing vs. “telling” in your writing. I thought I’d share some of that workshop here, for you!
First of all, have you ever been told that you “tell” too much in your writing; that you need to “show” more? I think most of us have — but what does that even mean?
“Show, don’t tell.”
When an agent or editor says this about your writing, they mean:
- Don’t just tell me the story…show me, using your words. Paint me the picture. Describe how emotion looks — don’t tell me the MC is sad. Show me what sad looks like on your MC.
- Place the reader INTO the story. This is especially important in first person POV—but also equally important in close third. Show me what the environment is like, and how the MC fits into it. Show me reactions.
- Use the senses to bring the reader along for the ride. Sight, Sound, Touch, Taste, Smell.
- Use specificity.
Here’s an example…in my pretend first draft of a YA contemporary romance, I might describe the love interest this way:
I watched as John walked into the room. He was hot; maybe the best looking boy any of us had ever seen.
This is Telling. If you want the reader to envision the subject of this sentence in a certain way, you must be more specific. Rewriting the scene by using specificity and the senses, here’s my new introduction.
This is what I mean by showing:
John didn’t walk into the cafeteria. He swaggered like the Mayor of Westfield High School, as he shook hands and slapped shoulders. If there had been a baby somewhere, he would have kissed it. Normally, that sort of attitude makes my stomach turn, but not today. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He even nodded at the lunch ladies. When he got to my table, our eyes met for the briefest of moments, and I felt like the only girl in the world.
You can add character detail, voice, and setting at the same time. This is showing. Wouldn’t you rather read the second? You get a sense of the narrator as well as John.
What’s the Difference?
In order to “show,” use physical attributes, or active descriptions to convey emotion — try to refrain from “telling” the reader what the character is feeling. The emotion of the character should be obvious from your description — not because you outright tell the reader.
When you “show,” the reader should be able to infer emotion or character trait based on the language you’ve used.
One word of caution, you don’t need to show absolutely everything, especially if it’s not important to the forward motion of the plot. You risk the danger of being too lengthy or detailed if you’re not careful. Three-page descriptions of the woods — unless critical to the plot — are not necessary.
“Telling” means the narrative or character “tells” the reader the emotion or action. You shouldn’t have to tell the reader anything—they should be able to infer or know by the language you choose.
Appropriate “telling” can be used to move the action along quickly or tell necessary backstory in a shorter word count. However, you run the risk of “info dump” if you tell all the backstory this way.
Use a combination of the two to amp up your storytelling!
- Imagine a movie scene in your head — emotion is often conveyed with music. Write all the detail that you see. No “floating” heads of dialogue — be sure to describe where people are standing, what their hands are doing, noises in the room, where they are.
- Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted several studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc). Try to convey nonverbal communication in your writing. Show your character’s facial expressions or physical movements to achieve this.
- Consider investing in the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman to get a sense of how physical movement conveys emotion.
- Write your first draft using telling — to get your draft finished more quickly. But ramp up all the feels in your story by showing through your subsequent drafts!
- Jarrod was sick.
- Brainstorm what the sick room looks like: surroundings, smells, sounds. What does Jarrod look like? Taste in mouth, sensations of being sick?
- Write a paragraph “showing” us Jarrod.
Do the same for these two examples.
- The house was haunted — write this description but don’t use the words “haunted,” “scared,” or “afraid.”
- The pizza was delicious — writing about food is a good way to hone your showing…pizza might be delicious to some, but not to other readers. Describe the meal in a way that gives subtext to your character or plot.
I wish you all the best as you continue your writing! Let me know in the comments or on Twitter how this works for you! Find me at @KristineAsselin.