Show Don’t Tell

Recently, I’ve started to take a harder look at how I express my characters’ emotions.  I’ve noticed that instead of giving my reader pertinent information, I’m often showing what I should be telling.  Let me explain.

If I write “Hillary was curious about her new neighbor” it gets the point across but not much else.  I could do show much more by showing this curiosity in a scene.

“Hillary paced down the row of bushes to the slight gap where she and Katie had cut through to each other’s yards.   Gone from the back porch was Katie’s bike, shiny bike.  In its place leaned a baseball bat, a ratty glove, and a pair of ragged shoes caked in mud.”

Okay, it isn’t Cleary but it tells you not only that Hillary is curious, but also:

  • Her best friend is Katie.
  • Katie used to live next door.
  • She and Katie spent a lot of time going from house to house.
  • Katie might have been a bit meticulous.
  • The new kid plays baseball.
  • The new kids might not be a neat freak.

In this version you actually see a bit of the setting and get a feel for three different characters.  So much better than “Hillary was curious.”  Snore!

I could also pull out The Emotion Thesaurus and add a few tells for Hillary’s emotional state.  Is she sad when she looks into Katie’s former yard?  Lonely?  Angry?  A physical reaction could give the reader a clue without my having to spell it out.

I started noodling this over after reading The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson.  She doesn’t tell me that one character mourned another’s death.  She shows us his silent scream.  Nor does she tell us when he starts to come out of his icy shell.  Instead, he hurries out to greet another character returning from a perilous assignment.  Instead of telling us how the character feels and what he is thinking, she shows us either through action or dialogue.

Off to scout out other lazy bits of writing.


2 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell

  1. I get that comment in my writing more often then I would like. A lot of my ‘showing’ occurs in my characters’ inner monologues which I think adds a special style to my writing and I enjoy it but there are many passages in which I employ telling (unconsciously I swear) versus showing. My current manuscript (as yet untitled) is quite short and I got that editing comment. I can combine these two potential issues and add better descriptions by showing versus straight up telling.

    1. Rachel,
      I think this is something we all do in a variety of ways. I tend to tell emotion. Or have my character think things that would be better shown. There’s always something more to work on, yes?

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