After a small hiatus for the #1st50 competition, we’re back with some more advice from both ourselves and industry experts.
This edition is focussing on the sage advice of SHOW DON’T TELL.
I am 100% certain that every writer has heard those words from a CP, editor or agent at some point in their writing life. It’s cool, we’re all guilty of it. Sometime it’s unavoidable, but hopefully we’ve got some good advice and tips to help avoid this and improve your writing.
Again, before we give our best advice, here’s some other great advice from industry experts.
- Writers Workshop do a nice post with examples here.
- A nice balanced piece, discussing when and where each is appropriate here.
- A post recommended by the editors at #revpit – here.
- Writers Digest – Another balanced piece considering when and where it’s okay to break the rules as well as follow them here.
- Nice Twitter thread and video here from Naomi Hughes, #pitchwars mentor, editor and author.
- Emma Darwin has a great blog post about it here.
- A lovely YouTube video (part of a super series from Ellen Brock) here.
‘Show not tell. Draw your reader into a personalised setting. Peek through the blinds of the novel’s pages. Step into the lines themselves, don’t patronise them, treat them with care after all, they’ve chosen to spend precious hours with you. Experiencing something is much more powerful than being told about experiencing something. When I tell my children what they have done wrong they very rarely listen to me. If I show them in a way they understand they mostly remember for next time. I think showing imprints the mind with a stronger image than telling, although often I find it hard because telling is usually shorter and a quick fire solution. You have to work hard to make it look effortless, but if you get it right it pays off.’
‘Avoid emotion words like angry, sad, happy, despressed – instead show us this emotion using physical descriptions (balled fists is overused, but shows anger) or using the surrounding landscape to mirror this (like a volcano erupting, or more subtle than that! Really it’s more about how the landscape is perceived by the character – if they are angry they would see it different from when they are happy for example) or using objects or dialogue (shouting is an easy one for anger but not always that effective, it’s more about word choice) to express all of this without directly telling the reader the emotion.’
‘I’m a great believer that each has their place. Knowing when and where best to use each is a fine art. If too much telling is a sign of a beginning writer then too much showing might be considered the sign of an intermediate writer. If your character is constantly sighing, balling up their fists, their heart pulsing in their chest… It might have your reader calling for the paramedics.
Sometimes you need to take the short route (reporting the general gist of a conversation rather than writing every word for example). Emma Darwin has a great blog about it. Read it here.
It’s a matter of making sure you’re doing it deliberately for good reason. And that you transition smoothly between the different techniques.
Although I’m not sure I quite like referring to writers as beginners or intermediate writers. It’s all just a matter of editing – we all have our different strengths & weaknesses. It’s just a matter of knowing what they are & knowing what to do about it. The only way any of us will ever know that is through keeping writing.’
‘For me, showing not telling is something I get better at as each draft goes on. Don’t kick yourself if you don’t manage it the first time but keep your eyes peeled on that second read through. Look out for sentences that tell you what the character is feeling (‘Matilda felt sick’) and replace them with something that shows the reader instead (‘Matilda’s mouth began to water, her stomach churning’). You are building a world for the reader but you just want to give them part of the picture; they’ll paint the rest themselves.’
‘It’s not enough to tell someone you love them; you have to show people that you love them through actions. We need to try to apply this same concept to writing too (not always easy!) So instead of saying two characters are madly attracted to one another, we could ‘show’ their attraction e.g.: ‘He eyeballed her intently, while she smirked her best smirk, the one that hid everything.’ ‘
‘I learned to show not tell by freeing the reader from the character’s head – a trap I fell into when I first started writing. Don’t give a narrative of what the character thinks – use actions to show the reader those thoughts and feelings.’