It's Written All Over Your Face or Show, Don't Tell - S1 E1
Welcome to the Everything's All Write podcast blog! Everything’s All Write is a podcast and blog for writers looking to practice, sharpen, and expand their skills. Today’s topic of discussion is It’s Written All Over Your Face or Show, Don’t Tell.
If you’ve ever written anything remotely like fiction or following a story, then you have likely heard the admonishment to “Show, Don’t Tell.”
So, what is “show, don’t tell” and what does it really mean? Well, “show, don’t tell” is a writing technique which encourages writers to relay a character’s emotions through sensory description rather than blunt affirmations.
The reasoning behind the technique is rooted in the belief it is more immersive and rewarding for readers if they remain “in the moment” with the character. Now, I’m going to use a quote here, and its an over used quote, but it’s also so very good at making its point that it gets around… well, anyway, I’m going to use it.
Anton Chekhov is attributed with saying, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
What did dear old Anton mean by that? Well, let’s look at an example:
Hundreds of swimmers are killed during high tide in the sapphire pools of Enit-sel Six. The sparkling azure waters twinkle and pulse like a living, liquid blanket of a thousand stars suspended in a velvety, warm medium that caresses the skin leaving trails of pleasant tingles in its wake. But the beautiful waters hold a deadly secret in their cerulean depths. The firefly lights that make the waves dance in dazzling brilliance are also the same non-sentient beings that quietly condemn star-dazed swimmers to a watery tomb. It is the delightful buzzing, tingling sensations that kill them, the excited sparks gliding across the skin that conceals the paralyzing venom of a trillion tiny bites. Legs, arms, and other appendages began to slow, churning sluggishly through the water and it is then the swimmer realizes that something is wrong. But of course, by then, it is often too late. The toxin dulls the lungs, silences the heart and in a haze of confusion the once joyous swimmer slips beneath the rolling crystal surface with an expression of grim bewilderment because, though the swimmer understands that air is needed, that it is an immediate requirement to redirect the swift course of events away from its rapidly, inevitable conclusion, the swimmer simply cannot reconcile the moment with the fact that he or she is dying. And so, they slip away from the floating world above never quite comprehending why.
It is a feeling Ben could sympathize with.
Ben was confused.
This example was taken from one of my own pieces of writing, and it is an extreme example. For me, this passage was an exercise in the “show, don’t tell” technique. I could have easily just said that Ben was confused, but the story of the swimmers, in my opinion, paints a much more vivid picture and gives the state of confusion much more emotional depth and nuance.
Here’s a simpler example of the same principle:
His hand trembled and the carefully stacked containers of food fell to the floor with a muted clatter and a squishy thump.
He was so nervous that he dropped the food.
This example, while significantly shorter, demonstrates the same technique of “showing” the reader that the character is nervous through his actions rather than simply “telling” his emotional state.
Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever just “tell” your reader something about your characters. Sometimes you may do it for dramatic effect, parallelism, foreshadowing, or a host of other reasons. However, all of these instances depend on the context surrounding that particular story entry and you have to make that decision for yourself based on the rhythm and style of your writing.
Just remember though, generally speaking, it is better to let your reader deduce what is happening rather then be provided with a laundry list of events and emotions.
Ok, so that’s the gist of what and why, now let’s talk about some tips on how to better incorporate the “show, don’t tell” technique into your own writing.
Tips & Tricks
Here are my 5 tips for “showing and not telling” in your writing.
Tip #5 – Utilize vivid descriptions, but don’t overuse them.
Be careful with going too far with your descriptors. My first example, the swimmers example, probably goes too far for most people, but it was also constructed as an exercise in how far I could push the technique before breaking it. Generally speaking though, you don’t want your description to be so long or so esoteric that you risk losing the reader’s interest. Always strive for a balance in the length of your prose.
Tip #4 – Use the setting to set the emotional tone.
The setting can be a more powerful tool in setting an emotional tone for a scene or story and should not be ignored. If you provide a setting with spooky descriptions and creepy language, the reader will infer that characters within that scene will be on edge or fearful unless explicitly told otherwise.
Example: The traveling party found themselves surrounded by a deep, thick wood. The moonlight, unable to penetrate the dense canopy, cast small, shifting shadows on the ground that moved and skittered in the breeze like living things.
Instead of: The traveling party stood in the spooky woods at night.
Tip #3 – Use character dialogue to express emotion.
The last three tips all deal with using characters to express their emotional states rather than simply… well, stating them. In everyday life, people rarely start a conversation with “I’m so angry!” Instead, they might start with, “I can’t believe what that idiot did!” You know that this person is obviously angry without them having to explicitly tell you.
Example: “How dare you compare our circumstances! Your wife left you. Mine was taken from me!” Ian snarled.
Instead of: “How dare you compare our circumstances! Your wife left you. Mine was taken from me!” Ian said angrily.
Tip #2 – Use character action to express emotion.
Bluntly stating the action of a character always slows down a narrative. Any rhythm, pacing, or momentum that your story had, will disappear if you begin to list out events and actions like a police report.
Example: Slowly, James made his way to his front door, ducking ever so slightly so that his head wouldn’t be seen in the small windows above the peep hole. He unlocked the door, carefully pulling it open a few inches to glance outside. He saw no one standing or walking nearby, but he did notice a van parked across the street. The van had no markings or logos and its windows were all tinted a deep, impenetrable black. The hairs on the back of James’ neck stood up and a stone of disquiet settled in his belly as he slowly closed the door.
Instead of: James walked to his front door. He opened it and saw no one standing outside. He looked around and saw a van parked across the street. He looked at it suspiciously, then closed his door.
Tip #1 – Use character body language to express emotion.
Last, but certainly not least, a character’s non-verbal cues are excellent vehicles for conveying a character’s emotional state. Think about it, when your friend enters the room, her face pulled in a huge toothy grin while she hops in place makes you deduce that she is most likely excited about something. She didn’t have to tell you with words, her body language did the speaking for her. Strive to let your characters do the same, and I guarantee you will be rewarded.
Example: Toya sat down in a slump, her shoulders curled forward, her lowered head in her hands.
Instead of: Toya sat down frustrated.
So, we talked about it. We’ve explored examples and we have a handful of tips and tricks at our disposal. Now, let’s put our pens where are words are and put what we’ve learned into practice!
Here is your bi-weekly Wordsmith Challenge!
In 500 words or less, write a scene where someone makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In your writing be sure to “show” and not “tell” how the sandwich is made. Once you’ve written your piece, you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. The best pieces will be highlighted in a future episode and on this blog!
And if you don’t want to share your work, that’s okay too. The important thing is that you’re writing and trying something new. That’s how writing gets better! Even if you hate what you wrote, the practice will pay off.
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