Show, Don’t Tell

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Beginning writers are often instructed to Show, Don’t Tell. Sounds simple enough, but exactly what does that mean? Here are a few examples.

Telling. Bob Jones was fat.

Showing. Bob Jones pushed himself out of the chair. His arms wobbled has he hefted his large body up and tried to stand. His knees buckled under the weight and he had to sit down and catch his breath before he could try again.

Telling. I hurt myself.

Showing. My arm throbbed. Blood streamed from a large gash, staining my shirt and pants.

Telling. I was nervous.

Showing. Waiting for my teacher to reply, I grew dizzy. My face flushed and I hoped my deodorant was strong enough to mask my fear.

Telling. It was hot.

Showing. Max sweltered under the noonday heat. Beads of perspiration formed a river, dropping into his eyes and clouding his vision. If he didn’t find water soon, he knew he would pass out.

These are simple examples, but you will notice two things. It’s easier to tell because it uses less words, and often the word “was” shows up in the sentence. I was doing something; he was doing something. Your reader will get a better picture and be more invested in your story if you can describe what is happening with action. A man is so heavy he can’t get out of his chair. Blood streams from a cut on an arm.

Remember to use Show, Don’t Tell wisely. If you “show” every sentence in your novel it could easily reach 200,000 words. Show the things that are important and the things you want your reader to remember. Tell the small things that don’t matter. He started his car. He walked to the store.

Don’t forget to incorporate the five senses. What does your character hear? The sound of the chair creaking as he tries to stand. What does he smell? The grease from his cold French fries. What does he see? Blood staining his clothes. What does he taste? Salt when he licks his dry lips. What does he touch? His wet forehead when he wipes away the sweat. Using the senses is another way to make the scene more intimate and allows your reader to experience what your character is experiencing.

Balancing show and tell is tricky, but once you master it your writing will sparkle and your readers will ask for more.

-Bonnie Dodge

 

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