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Ways To “Show” instead of “Tell”

show me bunnyCritique partners, contest judges, agents and editors constantly admonish writers to “show” not “tell.” Too often this advice is interpreted by writers as the need to delete all “was” verbs in their writing. In my opinion, this is ridiculous. Yes, sometimes the deletion of a “was” verb improves the work. But a lot of the time there are many other, better ways to make your work more immediate and active and interesting. Today I’d like to discuss them.

1) The first and most obvious way to “show” your story rather than “tell” it is to include more scenes. Instead of telling your reader about something that happened offstage, bring the action onstage and show the reader, in an “in the now” scene, the action and dialogue first hand.

But I can’t have scene after scene after scene, you say. Non-stop action is just as bad as no action at all. Well, not really. Non-stop action can get exhausting if there aren’t any rest stops along the way, just as a non-stop driving trip is exhausting without taking some breaks. The trick is to determine which parts of the story need to be shown in active scenes and which parts simply need to be dealt with in other ways.

Here’s my rule of thumb: if something is going to happen in the scene that is pivotal to my protagonist’s journey, then it needs to be shown in an active, on-stage, scene. Otherwise, it can be handled in a few lines of narration. Example: in my February 2011 book MEET MR. PRINCE, my heroine had a date to go ice-skating with the hero and his children. During this excursion, Georgie (the heroine) was going to have a bad fall that would put her in a wheelchair for several weeks. This was a pivotal turning point in the story and deserved its own dramatic scene. All the other times my heroine would spend with the hero and/or his children could simply be told through a narrative transition, something like this:

Georgie lost count of the number of times she and Zach spent together in the weeks leading to the holidays. He constantly invited her to have dinner with him and his children, and even though she told herself these invitations meant nothing more than he felt sorry for her being without her family and friends in the city, part of her hoped he liked being with her as much as she liked being with him.

See what I mean? By the way, that paragraph is not a part of the book itself. I just made it up to illustrate my point.

2). Does your protagonist have a deep-seated character trait? A hard-core motivator behind most of his/her actions? Don’t tell the reader about these traits/motivators. Show them by illustrating them in the way your protagonist reacts to things happening today.

You don’t have to do much. A few anecdotes from your protagonist’s childhood or adolescence, such as how she (let’s call her Jane) rescued kittens or puppies or watched over a youngster who was being bullied or how she couldn’t bear for anyone to even kill a spider — all would illustrate her “motherly” and “protector” instincts and would strengthen her motivation.

His overreaction to his brother’s latest accomplishment would go far toward illustrating the envy and competitiveness behind your protagonist’s constant efforts to best his brother.

And you don’t always have to show these traits/motivators through the eyes of your protagonist, either. An observer – a second character in the scene – can note how Jane is always rescuing someone or something or how John can’t seem to stop competing with his brother.

This is what’s meant by “showing”, not “telling” — illustrating something you want the readers to believe by giving them a tiny glimpse into backstory OR by showing something that might seen unrelated in the present story, but isn’t — like Jane might help an old person who seems bewildered — thus showing the reader her innate nature.

3). Recently one of my students was worried about her first chapter – that there was too much narration and “telling.” She couldn’t figure out how to give the reader needed information from her protagonist’s backstory without making Chapter One an information dump. I suggested two things: either a Prologue in which the important event in backstory was shown in an active scene or using a mentor in Chapter One – someone the protagonist can talk to – someone who can act as a devil’s advocate and point out the pitfalls in the course of action the protagonist is considering – someone who can remind the protagonist of past events and how they figure into today’s problems.

I find the mentor/best friend to be the most important character in my story, after the protagonist, of course. He or she performs so many important roles: confidante, listener, advisor, truth-teller. Sometimes I make the mentor a sister or cousin, sometimes an aunt, sometimes a grandmother, sometimes a girlfriend – but it’s always someone who cares about the protagonist and who is there for her, a shoulder to cry on, a shoulder to lean on, and always someone with a kind heart and willing ear.

I hope these suggestions will help you weed out a lot of the telling in your story. But don’t try to weed all of it out. I do a whole lesson called Tell is Not a Four-Letter Word. Sometimes judicious telling is not only necessary but advisable.  One of these days I’ll upload that lesson, as well.

Copyright 2014 Patricia A. Kay
No part of this lesson may be duplicated or shared without written permission of the author.


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