by Jennifer Harris
You’ve heard it a hundred times, if not a thousand: show, don’t tell. But do you know what that really means? Almost every writer struggles with this concept at one point in their writing career. But once you learn the difference, and put it into practice, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can bring your readers into your writing.
I was recently looking back at some old writing, cringing as I noticed a chapter in which I began with a fairly large narrative summary. It made sense at the time I wrote it, but I know now that there was a better way to do it. By using the narrative form, I was giving information to the reader when instead I should have been giving the reader an experience.
In school many of us learned to begin our writing with a topic sentence or introductory paragraph, which is perfect when writing an article or work of nonfiction. It’s effective because it pre-loads the information, putting the reader in the frame of mind to not only process the information that follows, but to build upon prior knowledge. However, when writing fiction, this is something you want to avoid, though it can be a very hard habit to break, especially for those of us who continue to write nonfiction on a regular basis.
In today’s post, I’m sharing three tips on how to show, not tell and how to recognize the difference.
3 Ways to Show, Not Tell
(Examples from Choices, Book 1 of The Catalyst Series)
1 | Write your scenes so that they take place in real time.
In other words, readers should observe events as they are unfolding. Avoid describing what happened after the fact.
Days were passing into weeks and there was still no sign of Avey. We were all beginning to think she did in fact run away. There were no reports of any accidents. We had checked all the local hospitals, and even the hospitals near her hometown. No one had reported seeing her. It had now been three weeks since she went missing. We were sitting at the diner having dinner. Mae and Rosie were working the evening shift, so it was just Shirley, James, the baby and I sitting at the booth. Of course, Mae and Rosie stopped by every chance they got between customers. It was the end of September and the nights were getting chilly, so I ordered a hot cup of tea instead of my usual summertime iced sweet tea.
As you can see, in this first example, the reader is told what is happening using narrative summary. The better way to do it is shown below in the second example.
“I’ll have a cup of hot tea,” I told Mae as I rubbed my hands together for warmth.“It sure is getting chilly out there.”
“Rosie,” she yelled toward the counter. “Can you fix up a hot tea for Ethel while I visit with this sweet baby for a minute?”
“Sure thing. Then it’s my turn.”
Mae shoved herself into the seat next to Ayla as Jimmy scrunched himself up against the window to make room. “Hello, beautiful girl,” she said in an irritating baby voice. She picked up the Snoopy rattle and waved it around as Ayla’s little hands reached out for it.
“We were talking about the fall festival,” Shirley said. “It’ll be here before we know it.” Before I could answer, a siren wailed in the distance. We looked at each other and I knew we were thinking the same thing. Avey.
There was a long moment of silence before I heard Jimmy say quietly, “I talked to her Daddy. Still no sign of her.” He reached over and pulled Ayla out of her carrier despite the fact that Mae was still chattering away at her.
In the second example, you are seeing what is happening in real time. It is an immediate scene in which you are a part of, and the same information is being conveyed, but in a much more interesting and engaging way.
2 | Use description, action, and/or dialogue to put your reader in the story, but be careful to give just enough detail to trigger their imagination.
It’s tempting to paint a very detailed picture of a setting or locale for your reader—you want them to see what you see—but include too much detail and you’ll risk exhausting your reader and pulling them out of your story.
In the first example above, I told the reader that it was the end of September and the nights were getting chilly. A better way to do this would’ve been through description, action, and/or dialogue.
- I rubbed my hands together for warmth. “It sure is getting chilly out there.”
- A gust of wind chilled the warm air as she opened the door.
- Fat snow flakes were slowly floating down from the dark sky, covering the ground with a dusting of white.
The above are three ways I could’ve shown it was a cold evening rather than just telling the reader it was a chilly night.
3 | Avoid telling your readers about your characters’ emotions.
Instead, show what they feel. And be careful not to repeat what’s already shown in dialogue and action. If done well, the reader will get the point without reiteration.
I felt mad at Avey for wanting to spend money we didn’t have on a stupid lunch. When we finally got home, I got even more frustrated when I saw the laundry basket overflowing. “Avey, we really can’t afford it,” I said angrily.
In this first example, not only is the narrator telling the reader what Jimmy is feeling, but then goes on to reiterate it in the dialogue tag—I said angrily.
After what felt like an eternity, we made it home. Avey was still going on and on about that stupid lunch. I noticed the yard needed attention again. Putting my bag on the kitchen table, I turned my back to her. It felt like the walls were closing in. I cracked a window and a cool breeze hit me in the face. The refrigerator was making a worrisome new noise and I could only pray that it didn’t give out on us. There were dishes piled in the sink and laundry overflowed from the wicker basket I had gotten Avey last month.
In this example, the reader is being shown how Jimmy is feeling through description, how everything is building to the point of frustration. How could he feel anything else? And this was accomplished without using any variation of the word “frustrated.”
It’s important to remember, though, that there are times when it is appropriate to use narrative summary. A few reasons include:
- To vary rhythm and texture of your writing.
- To provide readers with a “brain break.”
- To stretch scenes out so reading doesn’t feel like a marathon.
- To break up repetitive dialogue and/or action.
Take a moment and read through the last few chapters you’ve written and ask yourself:
- How often do I use narrative summary?
- Do I have entire paragraphs or even chapters where I’m telling the reader what happens instead of showing it in real time?
- How can I revise the passages so that I’m showing and not telling my audience what is happening or what my character is feeling?
- Have I avoided included narrative summary completely, bouncing from scene to scene with no break?
- If so, where can I add a bit of narrative summary to balance it out?
It’s not always easy spotting when you’re telling instead of showing, but the more you practice and apply the tips above, the easier it will get.
Jennifer Harris is an editor of both fiction and nonfiction. She is the co-author of The Catalyst Series as well as The Providence Novella Series (J.L. Harris and D. Rankin). When she is not writing or editing, you can find her running, hiking, reading, or playing the piano. She lives in New England with her husband, two children, two dogs, and cat. You can find out more about Jennifer by connecting with her in our Authors Community Forum where you’ll find her social media information, or visiting her author page.