“Show, don’t tell” is one of those bits of advice that gets handed to aspiring writers in writing courses, advice columns, blogs, seminars, and while it may seem simple on the surface, many scribes can’t differentiate the two in their own work.
Telling a story is the blunt delivery of facts. “She was pretty.” “He was hungry.” “They were angry.” Yes, it does get straight to the heart of the matter, which makes it ideal for journalism and academia. But for prose it’s too antiseptic and puts distance between your work and your audience. Your goal as a writer is to immerse the audience into the world and allow them to experience things, people and places for themselves.
How does pretty look on this woman? Is it in the way her terracotta hair carelessly cascades over her delicate shoulders? Or do her eyes have a certain indefinable sparkle to them, making them alluring and sensual, with a touch of mischief? How would you describe hunger? The growling of a stomach and salivation in response to the Pavlovian stimuli of the school lunch bell? And anger, believe it or not, offers you a larger palette to paint from when you explore the other emotions—hurt, fear, grief, exhaustion—at play within it.
So, how do you bring the “show” into your writing?
1. Dialogue – This is the easiest way to let your audience experience a character’s mood and emotions. The catch is to avoid “on the nose” dialogue (I’ll get more into this in another post) which simply means having a character say exactly what they mean. Not only is it bland and boring, it’s unrealistic. In real life people speak in subtext, hinting and beating around the bush, secretly nudging conversation toward what they want to know and even then have to decipher the other person’s true meaning.
2. Sensory language – Using words and details to add color and depth to writing by appealing to your audience’s senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell, emotion) in order to let them fully experience what you’re writing about.
3. More descriptive, less adjectives – The tendency of most fledgling writers is to slap a string of adjectives together to describe an action or scene. But being descriptive is actually about selecting the right words and using them in moderation to put your meaning across. Remember: Adjectives tell. Verbs show.
4. Be specific – Want to frustrate your audience? Try using fuzzy language. Offering up vague sentences like, “It was a pleasant night”, “She was a strange-looking girl”, “His life was a mess”, doesn’t serve you as a writer. Why not invest the time and effort into describing the feeling of a scene and working out the best way convey it to your audience?
Does this mean everything you write should be “showing”? Of course not. Especially when you’re dealing with the dull bits of the story such as travel, transitions, unimportant characters, etc. Instead of boring your audience by expounding on necessary but not particularly interesting details, just say it and move on.
Speaking of moving on, I’m out of here. Sally forth and be writeful.