As a writer you’ve probably heard this expression a million times either in reference to your own work or someone else, you may have even told another writer this yourself- but what does it really mean when someone says “show us, don’t tell us.” A lot of writers can go their whole career and not truly understand what is being said in that simply phrase. I have even grapple with the meaning of the three letter phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” I recently took a one night online class by Michael Knost and he was able to shed an illumination on the subject that brought the entire subject into a brand new light of understanding. The following is my attempt to summarize the class.
“Instead of stating a situation flat-out, you want to let the reader discover what you are trying to say by watching a character in action or by listening to dialogue. Showing brings your character to life. It is the difference between actors acting out an event, and the lone playwright standing on a bare stage recanting the event to the audience.” –Michael Knost
Get rid of the narrator in your story and paint a picture with your words. Your goal is to evoke emotion in the reader as you paint this portrait, in doing so the reader will live vicariously through your story. They will feel the character’s pain, joy, and sorrow. It is the EMOTION you are trying to convey to the reader that makes us see what is really going on in the story.
Example of Telling= Karen wept for her daughter.
Example of Showing= The savage storm raged inside Karen as tears streaked down her cheeks in a relentless waterfall.
See the difference. I never mentioned the word cry in the second sentence but I didn’t have to. The words explained themselves, which leads me to my second point. If you have to label your emotion (she cried, he was angry, ect.) then it’s a clue that you are telling instead of showing. Get rid of the labels and find ways to describe the emotion so that the reader will relate and feel the emotion. They don’t want to be told how they should feel. Remember, don’t name your emotions!
Not sure how to do this? The best way to describe something is to know it, so the next time you feel angry, sad, pain, ect., consciously think of how you feel and archive it for later. Another great way to convey emotion is to involve your senses, so use touch, smell, taste, sound, and sight to bring more depth to what you are trying to say. Just remember to dig deep and feel the emotion as you write it. If you feel it, chances are you will show it.
Make sure to stay away from info dumps! Some ways you can improve your emotion and relay important information is through character actions, thoughts, body language and dialogue. You should also realize that when you show things it usually runs longer in word count than just telling something, especially if you use dialogue, but the story will be much richer from the effort of showing.
There are times when telling is acceptable, but realize that showing should make up about 85% to 90% of your written text. Times when it is alright to tell would be: when you are jumping in time or place, and if the action that is going on isn’t emotionally important (Joe got ready for work… is an example of acceptable telling, we don’t have to know his entire routine.).
The ultimate job of a writer is to be invisible. Don’t let the reader see you pulling their strings. Guide them in the direction you want them to go and they will love you for it. It’s because they want that escape from their own reality and want to experience the life of someone else for a time. They want to be shown that life, not told about it.
The best way to be good at showing is to practice it. Write every day and practice writing those emotions. Some emotions will be easier to write about than others, but its capturing those emotions and immortalizing them on the page that will make you a better writer and pull the reader into world that they want to get lost in.