Ernest Hemingway once said, “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.” Following this writing advice of “Show, Don’t Tell” is essential for a good short story, novel, or memoir. But “Showing” your characters and plot through your writing isn’t as easy as bringing your favorite toy to Show and Tell in kindergarten. At Writer’s Relief, we’ve reviewed thousands of manuscripts, and we’ve seen how hard it can be to master the art of Show, Don’t Tell. Here’s the best advice for writers who want to improve their ability to Show more and Tell less.
Talking at your readers will often lead to flat, dull stories. By showing instead of talking and telling, you allow your readers to experience the story through actions, dialogue, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through your summary of the events. These techniques will help you write stories your audience will enjoy reading.
Use dialogue. This is the easiest way to show rather than tell your readers what’s going on. An argument can reveal points of tension between characters, or a well-placed, witty remark can show that someone is inappropriately laid-back in a serious situation. Dialogue is a nuanced skill that every writer should cultivate, so here are some tips on how to write better dialogue.
Utilize direct and indirect characterization. Dialogue isn’t the only way to show your characters’ personalities. You can also give details about who they are, what they do, and their likes and dislikes through direct and indirect characterization. For instance, body language can reveal personality. If your character is shy, show their hesitancy to make eye contact or interact with new people. The same goes for showing how good or bad your character is. Someone nice may offer to treat a friend to coffee, while someone rude may push to the front of the coffee shop line during rush hour. Instead of simply describing your characters, using these direct and indirect details will make your characters more alive and interesting to read about.
Include all five senses. Let your readers experience the story with your characters. Immerse them in your setting by describing the smell of a musty, old room or the taste of freshly baked pastries. You can even take this a step further and include a character’s sense memory to provide some deeper meaning. Does a specific candle scent make them remember someone close to them? Does a song bring back memories from a significant event in their life?
Avoid adverbs. Any words that end in -ly can be cut and replaced with description. For example, instead of saying “Josh hurriedly left for work,” you can describe what Josh does and how he acts as he leaves. Show your readers that Josh skips breakfast, trips as he tries to shove his feet into already tied shoes, and almost forgets his fresh coffee on the kitchen counter in his haste to leave the house.
Be specific. Balance the description of your setting with the movement of your plot. While it’s important to describe things to help your reader get a sense of where they are, most readers become bored if you give too much information. If you’re writing about a missing person investigation in the woods, don’t describe the bark and leaves on every tree. Give a general description of the forest and zoom in on trees that have suspicious scratches or pieces of ripped cloth on a low branch. Using a well-placed analogy can also help improve your descriptions.
Don’t explain everything! Giving your readers every detail and answer on a silver platter doesn’t allow them to enjoy the experience of figuring out some things on their own. Write enough to give your readers a good idea of what’s happening, but leave room for their own interpretations of the facts, especially if you’re leading up to a big reveal.
Finding the balance between showing and telling will help you fully engage your readers. Using these writing tips to show and evoke feelings and emotion, rather than telling your audience what they should be feeling, will ultimately be the most effective way to move your story forward.
Question: What is your favorite technique for showing, not telling?