Show, don’t tell. It’s the golden standard of writing advice. Prospective authors are often criticised, put down or ignored for being too ‘telly’ and not showing enough. But often it might be difficult to pinpoint how to show certain things. The point of this post is to give some tips about how to show and not tell. Emotions are easy enough, as I’ll show below, but what about character? What about back-story? What about setting?
How do you show these things without just telling your reader what is going on? To do this, I’m going to break down the three main things that you can show rather than tell. This won’t cover everything, but hopefully it will help.
An important caveat: just because you should try to show, where possible, that doesn’t mean that telling is always wrong. Remember there are appropriate moments and times for telling, it just shouldn't dominate your approach.
Emotion is arguably the easiest thing to show instead of tell, and as such it should be one that you are getting absolutely right. I’m starting with this one because, for those confused, its an excellent way of demonstrating what show, don’t tell actually means.
It doesn’t mean deliberately obfuscate things for your reader. It means making things more like real life. It means making the reader feel like they are there.
Imagine you are at work one day and a colleague has a furious argument with someone and gets really angry. What would actually happen? Would they walk in the room and a helpful ethereal voice pop up and say ‘Jim is furious!” No. You would see him storm into the room, face twisted in anger and slam his fist on his desk, and your brain would take the necessary subconscious steps to work out ‘ah, he must be angry.’
All you are aiming to do in writing is make it more like the latter than the former. By telling, we actually remove our reader from the world we are creating. Nobody really tells people things regularly in real life, at least not all the time, and so by telling the reader becomes very aware that they are reading. This is not what you want.
So, instead of writing:
“Jim was furious.”
Jim stormed into the room, face twisted in anger, and slammed his fist on the desk.
Okay, it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The key to emotions is to imagine what someone would do if they felt that way and describe those actions. Think about the following things:
How would they move?
What would they do?
What would they look like?
What would they say?
Describing how they would move is an important first step. We hold ourselves differently when we are in different moods. Verb choice is an easy way to describe this. Look above: Jim didn’t walk into the room, he ‘stormed’ in. If he had ‘slumped’ in, it would have shown a very different thing.
Next is thinking about what they would do. Jim is being a bit cliche by slamming his fist on the desk, but maybe he’s an emotional guy so I’ll let it pass.
Then think about what they would look like - facial expression, body position. Are they staring at the floor? Are their eyes wide open or clenched shut?
Lastly is thinking about what they would say. It’s the only one not covered above, so let me try and include it in a redraft:
Jim stormed into the room, face twisted in anger, and slammed his fist on the desk.
There. That’s better. Jim is clearly very angry. But the most important thing is that at no point have we felt the need to tell the reader, blatantly, “Jim is very angry.” and take them out of the scene. This is the heart of showing and not telling.
Let’s try another one: fear.
See if you can pick out the four areas - how would they move? What would they do? What would they look like? What would they say (if they would say anything at all)?
Sarah fumbled with the touchscreen of her phone, panting hard. “Shit, shit, shit, shit.” Her head flicked up, panicked, as though it had a life of its own. She pressed her body further into the back wall.
Again - easy and straightforward.
This is where showing starts to get a little more difficult. I’ve written in the past about how effective character portraits often move away from physical descriptions, but this is just one element of it.
Let’s look at this description I wrote a while back:
The doors swung open. Detective Inspector James limped into the room, his wide shoulders barely fitting through the doorway. The entire room froze. He looked at the officers and growled. As his dark brown eyes surveyed the scene before him, his lips curled up into a malicious sneer.
“Dobson!” He barked. “Come with me!”
Relief crossed the face of every other cop in the room. As the doors closed behind them, all that could be heard from the corridor was the scared shuffling of young Dobson’s feet and the ominous tapping of DI James’ metal cane.
Essentially we are using the same skills - verb choice, describing how they act, speak, etc. But it goes deeper than surface emotions now. We are told very little about Mr James here, other than the fact that he is a Detective Inspector, but through the words used we can pick up hints.
Consider this: I was workshopping with some writers several months back and I read this description out and asked them a few questions and to construct a backstory for the character based on this quick description. While there were key differences, the main similarities between the four backstories were uncanny:
He used to be in the military (hence ‘veteran’) and worked his way up. It was very much his life and he dedicated himself to it. He was married during his time at the military. He was injured by a piece of shrapnel, or stray bullet, or something else (hence the cane), and was forced to leave. This made him extremely bitter - coupled with his wife leaving him (one wrote that he came back to find his wife cheating on him, one wrote that his wife left him because he was growing bitter and resentful, one wrote that his wife died of an unexpected illness), he now relives his old army days vicariously by terrorising other members of the police force. He lives alone, drinks too much and hates people. He’s staunchly Conservative.
It is amazing how many of these things can be imagined from a brief description that tells very few of them. This is what you should be aiming for with your character descriptions. It’s far more engaging for a reader to work for the implications than to simply be told them. If I had written out the backstory above directly, he would be a much less interesting character.
So how to do this?
You could take the approach with emotions and think about the following things:
This is your quick and easy way to go at it.
Another way is to go at it from the other end. Write down everything you already know about your character’s backstory - make a list of all the things they’ve been through and formative experiences they’ve had. Now fast-forward it to the present day (for your character). For each one, write down the impact (physical or emotional, or both) that this would have.
Put this in a table or list, like so:
Grew up in a Conservative family, but his father was never around.
Has attachment issues ever since he was young, caused him to marry the first woman that ever really showed him love.
Injured in the army
Limps, bitter, kind of hates young people because they are physically able and they remind him of what he once had. Likes to bully them as it makes him feel better.
Wife left him
Avoids women completely. Can barely talk to them. He just barks at them and saunters off. Very lonely. Cuts himself off from the world. Alcoholic.
Made into an Officer in the army at a very young age. Mother was proud.
Still fiddles with the badge when he’s nervous. Keeps it on him at all times. Would be beside himself if he lost it.
Sometimes they will be so small that you’ll just drop them into description now and again (the badge). Sometimes they’ll be big formative parts of your character (the loneliness). The point is that they come from somewhere. The point is also that, as a reader, working out experience from impact is far more compelling an activity than working out impact from experience. Watching him bully younger people and get a sick pleasure out of it is much more engaging than being told "he's jealous of younger people because he doesn't have that physical capability anymore."
For a much more detailed breakdown of how to create character's from experiences, I strongly urge you to check out “Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors” by Brandilyn Collins”. It's an exceptional writing advice book and really breaks down the character creation process well.
This one is often the toughest. Setting seems like something is prime for description, right? How do you show setting without telling your reader what is there?
This is absolutely fair enough, and often the setting (especially in fantasy / sci fi books) will be key to the plot and development of the scene. However, at times descriptions of settings can come across as extremely dull, regardless of how interesting or well-thought out that setting is.
The issue often arises when setting is divorced from plot or character. It is important to make sure that setting is introduced through action and not just described on its own.
A very good example of this is from Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings. The chasm-filled landscape of the Shattered Plains is a wonderful fantasy terrain, but it is described for the first time to us mid-battle.
The first time we here about the drops and gorges is when characters have to cross them to get to the Chasmfiend they are hunting. Bridges to cross the chasms become an integral plot point to Kaladin’s character later on. In fact, the setting itself is as much of an antagonist as any individual. This makes the setting come alive - it shows us the setting through describing something else, i.e. a character’s journey.
I would say this is a pretty hard and fast rule I try to stick by: setting should be shown through the development of character. It should help them, challenge them or be an obstacle for them. It should make them feel at home or completely lost. It should put them at ease or make them anxious. It should push them forward in the story. If it isn’t doing any of these things, try to think about why it is there in the first place and if you really need it.
Apologies to those who look forward to new advice, but due to work constraints and the fact that I'm falling behind on my own writing projects, I will only be posting once every two weeks from now on.
The next post will be about the writing process and where we get our ideas from. See you in two weeks!
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.