Oh, the old, repetitive adage we all hear through the entirety of our writing careers.
I’m guilty of this, saying show me, don’t tell me. Show me. Don’t tell me.
Image (c) Matthew Loffhagen
So, how do we do this?
First, we have what I deem simply as telling words. They’re thus: feel, felt, saw, looked, smelled, thought, wondered, found, touched, knew, and noticed. 99.99% of the time, these indicate telling.
Here are a few examples of them in action:
She wondered if he liked the color blue. / Would he like this in blue? Does he like blue?
He saw the forest looming in the distance. / The forest loomed in the distance.
I felt disgusted at the sight. / The bloated, dead deer twisted my gut with nausea.
Essentially, we’re trying to put the reader into the experience rather than telling them about it. This often creates first person/close third conditions—the most popular forms of storytelling, but even if a narrator is providing the reader with a story, they can draw the reader in with the same techniques as distant third and omniscient.
Now, other forms of telling are a bit harder to identify. However, we need to keep in mind that readers are smart, so when we show the character within the world, we don’t need to explain it to our readers.
For example, Silvia’s palms grew sweaty every time John got close. Her attraction to him made her nervous.
Note how her sweaty palms and his proximity impliesher attraction to him, and given the context of a story or setting and internal dialogue, we don’t need to hold up a sign and scream, “Hey, did you get it?”
I do want to mention that telling has its purpose, we need it to get through the boring parts of the story, to get us along to the exciting scenes.
For instance, we don’t want to describe the wake up, morning routine, and drive to work before we get to the stack of paperwork piled on our poor character’s plate and her impending breakdown from it. Spending time on this type of action would need a function, like creating internal turmoil, but it certainly shouldn’t last too long.
Instead, jump into that scene and her breakdown and tell while you show, because I’m sure she’ll reflect on how she dreaded every minute of her prep to get there in scene.
For instance, if this breakdown comes at the beginning of a story, the telling would come in her thoughts:
I knew it. Another damn stack of paperwork. The impending doom ticked with every second from the moment my alarm went off to finishing breakfast, from brushing my teeth to the stop-and-go on the highway to get here. And I knew it when that musty blast of AC clogged my nose as I pushed my way into the building.
This is telling, yes, because we don’t walk through every step with the character, but imagine if this took, let’s say, two to seven pages. (I’ve seen longer.) It would be really hard to keep the tension and interest of the reader. I deem this step-by-step telling.
Let’s take a brief peek at what this looks like:
I got up at six a.m. when my alarm went off, groaning about my stupid desk job. The floor was cold under my feet as I put each on the carpet-less floor. Tugging my nightie around myself, I shuffled to the closet to get my robe and rubbed my arms until some warmth returned. I walked to the bathroom to pee before I made breakfast.
I pulled the pan from the bottom, right cupboard and the butter from the fridge door…
And is this growing tedious yet? Are you asking, so what? What’s the point? Where’s the story?
But it’s showing. Full of details and images and actions, but this is the boring stuff, the stuff we can leave implied or simplified. Need a character to go upstairs? Don’t show him taking them, just show that he moved (on the second floor…in his bedroom…on the balcony…), and the reader will know that he must have gone up those stairs.
Try it out in your current WIP and share the changes below. I’d love to see what you come up with.