Show Don't Tell
The concept of SHOW DON’T TELL is a must-have for anyone writing a book. But what exactly does this mean? It sounds simple yet it remains one of the most difficult notions for new writers and aspiring authors to understand and implement. Fear not, I’m here to shed some light on this intimidating monsta. The easiest way to explain it is – show readers what’s happening instead of telling them what’s occurring. Still not picking up what I’m throwing down? Maybe a couple of examples will do the trick.
PASSAGE - TELLING - NAY-NAY
Ellie was shaking in her designer dress as she walked the red carpet. She wasn’t used to this life. It was way out of her comfort zone. She saw a crowd of people and was blinded by the flashing cameras. She heard them screaming his name and became overwhelmed. Her hands trembled and her heart accelerated very fast. There was a smell in the air. Her fiancé walked over to talk to a reporter. She stayed with security while he answered the reporter’s questions. She thought she saw his ex and got upset. She realized this had the potential to turn into a terrible encounter.
PASSAGE - SHOWING - YES PLEASE
Adapted from my women’s fiction, contemporary romance, WIP.
Ellie exited her comfort zone with a bang. As they approached the celebrity-lined carpet of the VMAs, heavy floral notes of eau de parfum, inviting musky cologne, and the unmistakable scent of egos and money hit her in the face. Shaking erupted from hands down to toes. The grain of confidence cultivated over long discussions and pep-talks vanished as her high-heeled shoe, accompanied by a Stella McCartney mini-dress, stepped onto the red carpet.
Voice and breathing trembled as much as her body. “Please don’t let go of my hand. I’m terrified.” Ellie, notorious for hiding in the shadows, safe and sound, walked the celebrity carpet, while her heart threatened to plunge through her chest. Sharing life with Ezekiel meant enduring rabid attention and the possibility of a panic attack.
“You’re okay.” He squeezed her hand tighter. “Smile, honey. Cameras are clicking.”
“I think I’m gonna be sick,” she mumbled through tight lips.
“You’ll be fine. But just in case, I have a vomit bag in my jacket pocket. You won’t need it though.” His smile never wavered. “I’ll get through the line as fast as I can. Trust me. Head up, love.”
“Oh, no. I see her,” she whispered.
Patience full-of-herself Rae posed for photographers like Aphrodite gracing the peons with her presence. Her obvious beauty stared Ellie in the face. Her diva attitude and pursuit of Ellie’s man would land her a right cross if she dared to step one tiny, pedicured toe over the line.
“I should have smacked her when I had the chance.” Ezekiel’s ex crawled under Ellie’s skin, like fire ants, with her sneering, superior attitude. “I’ll clock her if she comes near you.”
His hands cupped her face. Golden-teak eyes stared into chestnut brown. “There’ll be none of that, tough girl." His soft lips met hers. “Remember, you’re the only woman I see.”
Her jealousy flare faded with his cinnamon-flavored kiss and tender words. The scent of his to-die-for cologne instigated a calming effect.
Throngs of fans and photographers stood five rows deep. She stepped aside while they snapped the perfect shot of her famous superstar.
“Look this way.”
“Turn to the left.”
“Over here, Ezekiel.”
Bright flashes, blinded. Piercing cries of crazy fans shrieking his name in collective thunder, rang in her ears, and left her disoriented. Other stars gracing the carpet faded to a blur.
Ellie waited with Ezekiel’s bodyguard, Max, as reporters interviewed her soon-to-be husband. Before she met Ezekiel, she would have hunted down and treasured the photographs, and videos, shared on social media from this night.
Entertainment reporter questions glossed over the upcoming release of his latest film, Espresso, due out in November, and skipped to the hype about his new love interest. Ellie suffered through, close enough to hear some of the pointed questions.
“So, is it true you’ve found your soul mate?” the pushy reporter asked, sarcasm in tone. “Is she the lucky woman who finally snagged Ezekiel Larson?” She giggled in a flirty way, awaiting his response.
Ezekiel flashed his million-dollar smile and responded with the utmost grace, not at all rattled by a rude reporter. He winked at Ellie before answering. “Yes, it’s true. And here’s some breaking news for you, we’re engaged to be married.”
The reporter’s mouth hung open before grunting her congratulations.
At the end of the surreal carpet walk, Patience made a beeline for Ezekiel, dragging some poor sap along.
Ezekiel grabbed Ellie’s hand, holding it tight like she might let it swing, fist flying at Patience’s smug face. “Chill out, El. She’s not worth the trouble.”
SPOT THE DIFFERENCES
Can you spot the differences between the passages? The showing example teems with sensory details. The smell of perfume and men’s cologne, even the obviously unscented smell of money and egos, the touch of Ezekiel’s hand in Ellie’s, his soft lips, the taste of his kiss, the sound of screaming fans, the bright flashes of light, etc. The showing passage is loaded with dialogue between characters, shining a light on the POV (Point of View) from one of them, (Ellie). The scene is rich with description because it’s filled with specifics, such as names, environment, morsels of inner thought, and the feelings of the main character, without stating her feelings. Though there is some necessary telling within the scene, I avoided using telling words as much as possible and made an effort to strike a balance.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND WHILE WRITING
~ Include the 5 senses – what does your character see, hear, smell, touch, or taste? The five senses help your character to naturally interact with their environment. This helps you, as the writer, construct more of a showing scene rather than a telling scene. In the above passage we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch everything Ellie experiences.
~ Use specifics when describing the scene and setting the tone - The more specific you write, including names, actions, all the feels, atmosphere, immediate environment, and even inner thoughts, the more you will engage readers and transport them into the story. Specific descriptions equals rich writing.
~ Incorporate colors – Adding colors, adds richness and depth, and it’s another way to show not tell. Is your character blushing or red with rage? Pale or sporting a green tinge? Is the sky dark and stormy or filled with stars? What about the color of the walls or a shiny, new car? Is her dress a violent shade of purple or her hair bleach blonde? You get the idea.
~ Add dialogue – Having your characters talk to one another is one of the easiest ways to show not tell. So much detail can be thrown in the mix through dialogue, such as body language, action, and interaction within the specified setting.
~ Telling words to avoid – There are many weak, vague, and telling words to ditch. Learn to spot some of these pesky gremlins in your writing and vanquish them to a far-off land, for they will certainly lead you to telling instead of showing. Buckle up my darlings, beginning writers have a tough time avoiding these: is, are, was, were, had, have, remembered, wondered, imagined, suspected, realized, hoped, etc. I’ve mentioned a few here, but there are tons more. I refer you to Telling Words for a comprehensive list.
Remember, showing is dependent upon the character’s actions. For instance, she slammed the door and threw her purse across the room. This shows anger, but not what the character is thinking. Sometimes it’s necessary to tell not show, like when relaying inner dialogue. Inner thoughts can be put in italics, but in the above showing example, italics aren't necessary. We glean, through showing, Ellie's inner thoughts about her love for Ezekiel, her disdain for Patience Rae, the Hollywood lifestyle thrust upon her, and her anxiety about attending such a star-studded, in-your-face event. The reader also derives through showing dialogue how Ezekiel feels about Ellie - “Remember, you’re the only woman I see.” That sums up his feelings in a concise seven word sentence.
My best advice is to strive for showing, but balance your writing with snippets of telling. The showing example above has telling thrown in the mix - “I should have smacked her when I had the chance.” Ezekiel’s ex crawled under Ellie’s skin, like fire ants, with her sneering, superior attitude. I first show through dialogue that Ellie has met Patience before and since Ellie wished she would have smacked Patience we know she feels a dislike for the other woman. With the added telling about how Patience crawls under Ellie's skin and the further description of a sneering, superior attitude, we find out exactly how Ellie feels.
Balance showing and telling.