When I first began my writing career, these three words: SHOW, DON’T TELL, grated on me worse than fingernails down a blackboard. I just didn’t get it. Time and again, I thought, “I am TELLING a story! What is the problem?” Then somewhere down the line I finally figured it out. It didn’t come to me like a sudden epiphany, but at some point, it all started to make sense. And when it did, I realized just how important those three words really are to a well-written story.
Let me begin by saying my first impression was wrong. As a writer, I thought I was supposed to simply TELL a great story. Not so. I soon learned that my job isn’t to TELL a story, but to thrust my reader smack-dab into the action where they can experience it first-hand. As you can imagine, much of my early work read more like a newscast where the reader understood my story, but never connected with it.
Here's an example:
Then suddenly, after all this time, Annie received a letter from Grandma’s lawyer, Mr. Barclay, asking her to come to Charlotte Immediately. Daddy was in trouble and he knew a way that she could help. She immediately called Mark. He was overjoyed and agreed to meet her at the bus station the next day.
The above paragraph came from page 2 of a manuscript. Page 1 was filled with backmatter. But that's another article for another day. From it, you get the basic gist of what is going on but not the whole picture. You understand only what I’ve TOLD you, but you probably don’t feel like a part of it. Because I’ve left you on the outside looking in, you’re unattached. You have no real feel for Annie, her Dad, Mark or the situation.
Now, here’s the rewrite:
Four years after Annie’s last visit to Charlotte, she received a letter.
My name is Ambrose Barclay and I was retained as legal counsel by your late Grandmother, Theodora Davis, before her death. It has recently come to my attention that her property at 582 Magnolia Drive, which is presently inhabited by your Father, Maxwell Davis, will soon go into foreclosure. Due to legal matters and a secret trust set up by my client, I ask that you, as beneficiary, come to Charlotte immediately to stop these proceedings.
Annie booked a ticket for the next day then called her old friend Mark.
“Hello,” Mark’s familiar voice shot through the line.
“Hi, Mark, it’s Annie.”
“Annie! Great hearing from you. What’s going on?”
“Well, it looks like something’s happening at Grandma’s place.”
“Yeah,” Mark agreed. “Something sure isn’t right over there. The place is practically falling apart.”
Annie blinked back tears. Gran had been so meticulous.
“I bet Dad’s gold-digging wife has something to do with it," she said. "I’m heading there tomorrow on the bus. Can I stay at your house?”
“Hey, that’d be great!” Mark answered. “I’ll pick you up at the station.”
From the rewrite, you get a lot more than just the gist of the situation. Instead of TELLING you what happened, I’ve SHOWN you and let you experience it first-hand the same way the main character does. You know exactly what happened and, if I've done my job right, you should feel some sort of attachment to the story that you didn’t feel upon reading the original.
One way I SHOWED in the rewrite is with the use of dialog. In the real world, information is usually passed from one person to the next by the use of language. In books and stories, dialog is a great way to give information too. But make sure it is realistic and not an information dump. (See article: Dialog Despair.) Another way I SHOWED more than TOLD is by sharing the media-related info with you. Instead of telling you about the contents of Annie’s letter, I actually let you read it; or at least the important parts.
SHOWING instead of TELLING takes practice, but once you get into the habit, you shouldn’t have any trouble. Here are a few tips to help you recognize areas where you might be TELLING and how to change it to SHOWING:
- Don’t TELL your reader how a character feels.
Example: Martha was disappointed when her Dad didn’t make it to the party.
Instead, SHOW Martha’s disappointment through her words and actions:
Example: Martha wore a fake smile as she said goodbye to her guests. She shut the door behind the last one and leaned against it. “He didn’t make it, again.”
- Never tell the reader what another character says.
Example: Kevin’s Mom said he could go to the park with Ron.
Instead, show the exchange.
Example: “Mom, can I go to the park with Ron?” Kevin asked.
“Sure,” Mom answered.
- Watch out for those unnecessary adverbs.
Example: He walked dejectedly away from the jeering crowd.
Instead, show his feelings without the crutch of a flimsy adverb. Beef it up.
Example: Head hung low, he left the jeering crowd for the safety of home.
So, if you want to be a better writer, stop TELLING stories. Instead, breathe some life into them and SHOW the world the exciting tales that stem from your imagination. Let your reader experience the excitement, the drama, and the emotion as it occurs. Because after all, readers don't want to just read a story, they want to live it!
-Niki Masse Schoenfeldt