Show versus Tell

Posted: June 19, 2013 by K D Blakely in Karen's Words
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve heard beginning writers say, “You keep telling me to show how the character feels, rather than tell about it. So, how am I supposed to do that?” And, if I’m being honest, that was me just a few years ago.

The best writers make it easy for us to see what’s happening on the page. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to do. There are two different methods that work well.

The first is to let your reader get inside the character. When this is done well, the reader feels like they are inside the character’s head, watching what is happening through the character’s eyes, feeling the character’s emotions, experiencing the character’s thoughts.

The other method allows the reader to feel like they are standing right next to the character, watching what is happening to the character, seeing how the character reacts to what is going on around them. This type of writing can allow the reader to watch the story unfold like a movie inside their head.

Clear as mud, right? Still doesn’t tell you HOW to do it. It’s actually far easier to see how to do it than it is to have it explained to you.

First, let’s talk being inside the character. This can be done in first or third person.   Here’s a third person example: Brady was upset by what he’d just seen.

This gives you two important pieces of information: 1) Brady just saw something; and 2) What he saw upset him. This is exactly how many beginning writers ‘tell’ the reader about what the character is experiencing.

There are two problems with this, (well there’s probably more than two, but I’m going to concentrate on two for now). Problem one – We have no idea just how upset Brady really is. And to compensate for this, beginning writers will frequently tell the reader how upset the character is. For example: Brady was furious at (shocked by, disgusted with) what he’d just seen.

And there’s the second problem. Writing like that does get the point across. But it’s just not that interesting.

It’s much more effective for the writer to allow the reader to experience the character’s mental and, as my friend Ruth likes to say, visceral reactions. This allows the writer to ‘show’ the character. This also gives the reader a better understanding of the intensity of the character’s reaction (e.g. on a scale from slightly miffed to violently angry). I have a few quick examples below. (I would normally spend more time polishing them up during the editing process, but they’ll work for now.)

Remember, the following statements replace: Brady was upset by what he’d just seen.

Brady closed his eyes to block the sight while his stomach twisted and rolled, and his palms began to sweat. (There’s no need to write: Brady felt sick by what he’d just seen.)

Note – The reactions above are visceral reactions. They include any type of internal reaction that is beyond the character’s control – pounding heart, nausea, sweating, dizziness, etc.

Or

Brady scowled and shook his head at the sight before him. Then he turned and began the long walk back to the car.  Alone.

Or

Brady cursed as he raced forward, ignoring the shooting pain in his calves and the stitch in his side. He couldn’t take his eyes off the sight in front of him, nor could he bring himself to stop. Even though he would be far too late.

Including internal mental and visceral reactions also works well in first person. For example:

I wanted to shout at them to be quiet, though I could barely hear the rumble of their words over the buzzing in my ears. What I’d just seen wouldn’t settle into place. The images kept twisting and writhing in my head.

Those are all ways to let the reader inside your character. The other method a writer can use is to let the reader watch how the character feels through their physical reactions – basically, watching the action from outside of the character. For the purpose of this exercise, assume Jenny asked Brady a question and Brady responded with excitement.

Have you ever read something like: “Yes,” Brady answered Jenny, excitedly.

I’ve again told you two important things. 1) Brady has answered a question from Jenny; and 2) Brady’s excited about it. But this doesn’t let us know how excited Brady feels. And I’ll be the first to admit, Brady seems pretty boring here. So how can I show the reader how Brady feels with physical reactions? Here’s a few examples:

Bouncing from one foot to the other, Brady answered Jenny before she even had a chance to finish the question. “Yes. The answer is definitely yes.”

Or

“Yes!” Brady’s shout had everyone’s head turning, so they all had a clear view when he grabbed Jenny and swung her around in a dizzying circle.

Or

Brady gave each of us a high five before turning to Jenny. “Absolutely!”

What about in first person? Yes, you are inside the character’s head, but you can still show physical reactions.

I did a quick happy dance. That was probably answer enough for Jenny. But just in case…”Yes!”

Hopefully, this makes the difference between showing and telling a little clearer than mud. It takes a lot more effort to provide descriptions, and it’s often tempting to just stick an adjective on the end of a dialog tag (e.g. …Brady said, excited).

I used to struggle with this. What are the authentic physical and visceral reactions to the numerous situations we put our characters into? Unless this comes naturally to you, it’s not realistic to plan to stop writing in order to scare yourself, or to remember something painful, to experience genuine reactions that you can describe for your character. However, I’ve found something very helpful, and I recommend it for anyone who has trouble ‘showing’ how their characters feel. While there are a number of good reference books, I have one that I always keep on the table when I write at home. I also have an electronic copy on my phone that I can use if I’m writing somewhere else. It’s called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It provides physical, mental, and visceral descriptions for a wide variety of emotions.

It should be noted that the descriptions I used in this post all came out of my head, and The Emotion Thesaurus is in no way to blame!

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Comments
  1. Matthew Ridenour says:

    Thanks for posting about this! So often we are TOLD to show and not tell, but rarely are we SHOWN how to do it. 🙂

  2. Great examples to illustrate your points–they definitely SHOW what you mean, instead of just telling us the concept. 🙂

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