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Show, Don’t Tell

editing your novel novel writing techniques Nov 27, 2022
don't obsess over the word count of your story when you're writing to show

‘Show, Don’t Tell.’ It’s a classic piece of writing advice editors love to dish out, particularly to new writers. It’s touted as pretty much the golden rule of fiction writing, and – although we staunchly believe in Tools Not Rules here at The Novelry, we can see why. Failing to follow this mantra can make otherwise excellent writing feel a little flat, and mean readers lose interest in what is actually a great story.

But this nugget of wisdom probably has a lot of authors banging their heads against the wall wondering what on earth it means, and – crucially – how they are supposed to utilise it in their own writing.

Fear not, we’re here to show (not tell) you!

In essence, show don’t tell is all about your writing technique. It entails using sensory details and action – even specific details about two characters’ body language as they face off – to build a four-dimensional story in the reader’s mind. Instead of telling readers what’s going on and how they should feel about it, you let them work it all out for themselves, creating a much deeper connection with your story. It’s also a far more satisfying way to develop characters that feel real and interesting, and elicit an emotional response. Plus, by skipping the frilly descriptions you can keep your word count down – something that will help you commercially, but also make you a better writer!

Finding the right balance between description and action is important whether you’re writing a novel, a short story or even non-fiction. So to help you drip vivid details and engaging clues into your writing, Josie Humber is shedding light on how to follow the show don’t tell philosophy.

After working in publishing for the best part of a decade, Josie Humber was a Senior Commissioning Editor at Hodder & Stoughton before she joined The Novelry as a Senior Editor. So she has edited a fair few books in her time, and has marked up enough sentences with ‘Show, don’t tell!’ to spot these errors a mile off, and show you how to do it with your own work.

And remember, if you want to refine your creative writing skills, we have plenty of writing tips on our blog, from advice on how to flesh out fictional characters, to guides on starting a story – and structuring one. And if you’re really serious about your stories, join us at the home of happy writing on one of our creative writing courses.

 

Show don’t tell – what’s the difference?

Before you start to write – or indeed edit – let’s get to grips with the actual difference between showing and telling.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Anton Chekhov

Put simply, showing illustrates, while telling merely states. I’ll give you some examples to show you the different experiences this creates in the reader’s mind.

Showing:

Johnny eyed up the dog. The hairs on the back of his neck were as raised as those of the animal. He tugged on his mother’s skirt, positioning himself ever so slightly behind her legs.

Telling:

Johnny was scared of the dog.

Which of these is more compelling? It makes for a far more satisfying reading experience if we feel we are picking up on all the clues the author is dropping in the scene, reading the character’s reactions, getting those sensory details and gauging what they might be feeling. We get to imagine and empathise much more. Telling us directly takes away all the mystery.

So, you need to show the reader what is happening in the room by describing specific details about significant things they would see if they were there, and then trust that the reader can read the room and the characters that inhabit it.

Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.
Ernest Hemingway

 

Areas where you need to make sure you show don’t tell

But ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ comes in many insidious forms, so let’s take a look at some different categories so you can rid them from your manuscript for good!

  1. Characterisation
  2. Character’s feelings
  3. World-building
  4. Sense of place – describing through action
  5. Adverbs
  6. Adverbs in dialogue tags
  7. Subtext

 

1. Characterisation

When you’re building up a main character, you might compile a list of their character traits whilst you’re figuring out what they are going to be like. But don’t make the mistake of just rattling these off when you start to write and introduce that character to your readers.

Your character is immature and has commitment issues? Instead of telling the reader this, show him ghosting his last girlfriend because she asked if she could meet his parents, or turning pale when she reaches for his hand in public.

You’ve got a stroppy teen to introduce? Don’t tell us ‘Chrissy was in her moody-teenage phase.’ Show a mother at her wit’s end trying to get more than a monosyllabic conversation going with her daughter, while the girl attempts to sneak her dinner off to her bedroom.

Don’t bother explaining what’s happening; cut straight to the good stuff. Demonstrate character traits through dialogue and action, and the reader will soon pick up on exactly the kind of person they are. Let readers’ minds do the work; that’s half the joy of reading!

Your character is immature and has commitment issues? Instead of telling the reader this, show him ghosting his last girlfriend because she asked if she could meet his parents, or turning pale when she reaches for his hand in public.

 

2. Character’s feelings

I find myself editing for ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ so much more frequently in first-person prose, and I think this is because when you’re imagining yourself in your character’s shoes, there’s an urge to express every thought and feeling going on in their head.

But in reality, very few people walk around understanding how they feel at any given moment, and so it’s jarring (and dare I say boring!) when this happens in fiction writing. Let’s look at another example to bring show don’t tell to life:

Tell:

I looked at Peter and his new wife with a raging jealousy I didn’t know I had in me. As the pair walked away, I felt a deep despair consuming me. I didn’t know if I could continue down the street.

Show:

It was only when I felt the beat of my heart through my shirt that I realised it was Peter in front of me. The casual way he placed his hand on the small of the woman’s back told me everything I needed to know. It was her. Spots danced in my vision, and it was a few seconds before I remembered to breathe again. I stared at my feet, willing them to keep moving, as suited men and women poured out of their offices, pushing past by me on the sidewalk.

Can you see how much more visceral and compelling the second example is? We’re dealing with the same relationship between the same two characters, but the second passage is so much richer.

Instead of just being told how this woman feels, we get to experience that pain and the physical reaction she is having through those all-important sensory details. We can see that she’s jealous, we can see that she’s despairing, and we can see that she’s struggling to walk down the street, but everything is illustrated rather than told.

If you paint a vivid enough picture of what’s happening, your reader will be able to sense the emotions coursing through your characters. After all, it’s how we live our lives! Think about all the physical and verbal cues that you pick up on every day – you’ll usually sense these far before someone will tell you their true feelings.

 

even if it takes more words it's worth it to bring your story to life for your readers - show us how they talk and let us hear more than they say


3. World-building

World-building can be a difficult area for the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ rule, because you might be thinking, ‘Of course I have to tell the reader what’s in the room for them to know what’s there!’

And yes, you do, but there is a difference between showing them what is in the room and telling them the information you want them to infer from it.

Let’s take a look at an example from a novel with lots of world-building: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. 

Here’s the opening paragraph of Chapter 2, the first time we see our protagonist, Offred, in the Commander’s home (although we don’t know any of this yet).

A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.

Now, you could think this is a whole load of telling, but look closer.

Our protagonist, Offred, is showing us everything she can currently see, and this is allowing the reader to infer what the author wants to tell us. There’s much more detail than the words alone convey.

With this description, Atwood is actually telling us a number of things that are not explicit on the page: that our protagonist is possibly lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, the detailed description implying a person with a lot of time on their hands. We can see that things have been changed in this house, and this has been done by a mysterious ‘they’. And that people in this house are likely to try to kill themselves.

That’s a whole lot of subtext from one description of a ceiling, and isn’t it so much more captivating than if she had just told us all that?

 

4. Sense of place – describing through action

Similar to world-building, creating ‘sense of place’ could just be any time a character is in a new location and you want to show the reader what this new setting is like.

But rather than stopping everything to spend a whole paragraph telling us about Times Square, you can instead show the reader what it is like through action and how things are affecting your character. Here’s another example of why we show don’t tell:

Telling:

Mark was in the bustling streets of Times Square trying to hail a cab. There were bright advertisements as far as the eye could see and street performers blasting out music from their boom boxes. He was tired of it all and just wanted to get back to his home in Brooklyn.

Showing:

Mark edged his way to the front of the crowded sidewalk, hailing a yellow cab just before another couple had seen it. He let out a sigh of relief as he pulled the door shut, muting the competing sounds of boom boxes and the glaring lights of too many billboards. “Brooklyn,” he told the driver. “I need to get home.”

Can you see how much more dynamic that second paragraph is? You’re getting the exact same information across, but you’re being shown it all through its effects on Mark and how he is interacting with the world around him. What we see is action: things that you could watch in a movie, play or TV show, but we can sense exactly how he’s feeling.

Give it a go in your work anywhere you feel you have stagnant description in your novels or short stories.

 

5.  Adverbs

As usual, Stephen King has some good advice for writers when it comes to upholding the immortal show don’t tell philosophy.

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
Stephen King

Yes, the dreaded adverb. If you ever get me as your editor, you’ll find every adverb in your manuscript highlighted with a comment box asking, ‘Is this necessary?’ And the answer is almost always ‘no.’

The advice to rid your writing of adverbs comes under the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ umbrella, because an adverb is by its very nature a ‘telling’ word, as you are telling the reader how a verb is being done. You can describe action without having to describe every detail about how it’s executed.

To paraphrase Stephen King, adverbs show that either you don’t trust your reader enough to understand how an action is being done, that you haven’t built up enough context for the reader to understand it implicitly, or that you need to choose strong verbs to do some heavier lifting.

Let’s take a look at another piece of classic literature, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and I’ll show you how adverbs can ruin everything.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood at the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
―Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Not an adverb in sight. We can assume how all these verbs are being done without the author telling us. Now let’s take a look at what it could have been like if she didn’t trust her reader:

Last night I dreamed vividly I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood lifelessly at the iron gate leading directly to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was firmly barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called loudly in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering eagerly closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I suddenly saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
―Imaginary version of Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Was du Maurier ever tempted to add these adverbs? Perhaps her first draft was rife with them. If so, then – as is often the case – editing made her a better writer.

By striking them out one by one, you can see how the writing becomes cleaner and easier to digest, allowing the reader to make up their own mind about how these actions are being done.

 

6. Adverbs in dialogue tags

This is another real bugbear for us editors, and it’s one of the most common ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ mistakes I see.

Like the above, you need to show the reader how something is being said, rather than telling them. This can be done through your character’s word choice, the look in their eye, a well-placed pause, the stony silence they get in response. Whatever it is, you need to show the reader how the emotions are being manifested, so they can infer themselves how the dialogue is being said.

Let’s look at another show don’t tell example:

Tell:

“How could you do this to me?” Matt said angrily.

“I didn’t mean to,” Sophie said apologetically. “It’s just…” She suddenly changed tack. “I really care about you and didn’t want to hurt you.”

“You care about me?” he replied coyly.

Show:

“How could you do this to me?” Matt said, pacing from one side of the room to the other.

“I didn’t mean to.” Sophie could feel the tears prickling her eyes. “It’s just…” She sighed. “I really care about you and I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Matt stopped where he was in the middle of the room, his eyes meeting Sophie’s for the first time that night. “You care about me?”

See how you can pick up every emotion in that room simply from the physical actions you’re being shown – just as you would in real life. The reader can read those physical cues and draw their own conclusions as to what they mean. It’s the exact same dialogue, said in the same way, but the scene is brought to vivid life. Let us imagine what it means, and it becomes so much more impactful.

 

7.  Subtext

And finally, let’s take a look at subtext. Subtext is essentially what I’ve been talking about in all of the examples above.

At its core, subtext is all ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is. You’re showing the reader something, and they are reading the subtext (what you want to tell them) into it.

However, I know it can feel like an abstract concept, so let’s take a look at some examples from the opening lines of famous books, and think about what they are showing us, and what the hidden subtext is that the author wants to tell us.

 

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Here we are told very plainly what has happened – Ayoola has killed a man – but there’s more in the subtext that the author is showing us: that the protagonist is at Ayoola’s beck and call, and that Ayoola has killed before…

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

The clocks are striking thirteen? Subtext: we must be in another time, another space, a world where things aren’t quite as we know them. But George doesn’t need to tell us that!

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog.

This might seem like a lot of telling (‘The dog was dead’ couldn’t be plainer!), but as in the other scenes, there’s so much subtext at play here.

We’re learning that the protagonist expresses himself in an unusual, matter-of-fact manner. We see that he’s precise with his timings and his descriptions. We’re being shown how he sees the world.

  

Help: I’ve told the reader everything, what do I do now?!

Panic not! If you can see it, you can fix it!

Read through your writing with all the above in mind and highlight anywhere you’re telling not showing. Now you have a whole list of things that you want to tell the reader, you simply need to find alternative ways to illustrate those things on the page.

Have you said it’s snowing? Try describing the sensation of snow melting on your character’s cheeks. Have you said someone is annoyed? Try describing the cold look in their eyes. Have you said a character is lost for words? Try breaking up their dialogue as they search for the right thing to say. Have you said they’re exhausted after a long night of work? Have them shuffling their folders to make space for a coffee cup.

Now that you’ve told yourself the story you’re actually halfway there, you simply need to translate it all into the glorious sensory world we live in!

 

 


 
 
make the point to convey more than what is written in an article, story or novel

Josie Humber 

Josie Humber is a Senior Editor at The Novelry who previously worked as Senior Commissioning Editor at Hodder & Stoughton, a division of Hachette. Before then, Josie worked at Transworld (a division of Penguin Random House) and Mantle (an imprint of Pan Macmillan). Josie has worked with a huge range of genres and bestselling authors. As an acquiring editor, she is an expert on submissions from literary agents, offering insight into what publishing professionals are looking for. Whatever genre you’re working in, your writing will be infinitely enriched by Josie’s editing expertise!

 


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