WordsDay: Show, Don't Tell

You’ve heard it said, “Show, don’t tell.”

But what does that mean? Think in terms of action. Your characters should be active participants in the storytelling, and they don’t need you, as the “invisible” storyteller sticking your nose into their tale.

When you tell the reader Jane is angry, you steal Jane’s agency in her life. Let her show the reader her anger; they will understand. So how do you know when someone is angry? If she’s washing dishes while having a difficult conversation, maybe she starts slamming dishes together. Does she stomp her foot? Raise her voice? Is her face going red?

Show me a character’s embarrassment.

Show me a character’s innocence.

Show me a character’s morbid curiosity.

This also comes into play when you’re dealing with a character’s backstory — what happened to them before your story started. How they got that odd name, or why they don’t trust delivery men. You should be careful not to “info-dump,” or stop the active, forward motion of the tale in order to explain things. Work the backstory into the narrative a little at a time, maybe as part of conversation, or an element of an argument, or … however you can find a way.

You as the writer — even if you’re writing a first-person narrative — should try not to intrude on the ongoing action. Imagine if a movie screeched to a halt to explain all of the heroine’s history before getting on with the action. As the writer, you should be SHOWING your characters through their actions and dialogue — and keep in mind that sometimes what a person says and what he does don’t quite line up, creating an internal tension in that character.

TRY NOT TO USE “THOUGHT” VERBS — recalled, remembered, wished, imagined, knew, etc. Also emotion words, like love, hate, envy, etc., except in dialogue. Chuck Palahniuk  calls this technique “unpacking” — finding the action that illustrates the message you want the reader to understand rather than spelling it out for them, and showing the character in action.

Palahniuk’s example: “Lisa hated Tom.” INSTEAD: Present an example of her hatred that readers can see: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout: ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here.’”

UNPACK THIS: Jim knew he’d never make it to work on time. And the longer the commute took, the angrier he got.

Tier Benefits
Recent Posts