Revision Tip: Show, Don’t Tell

Everyone’s heard the old writing adage “show, don’t tell,” but do you really know what that means?  It took me a long time to figure out how to do this, to understand that telling summarizes.  Showing requires details. 

So how do you show?

1. Be specific to bring the character’s experience alive, to make it personal. 

Don’t say: She felt cold. (generic — How cold?  What sort of cold?  Chilly, or freezing?)
Say: The  icy wind cut through her thin sweater and sliced across her skin. (specific)

Don’t say: There was a stink in the air. (generic — What sort of stink? Someone’s upset stomach or a decomposing body?  Is it faint or overwhelming?)
Say: The air was thick with rotten flesh. (specific)

Don’t say: She heard a loud knock on the door.  (generic — This could happen to anyone on any door.  It could be in any story.)
Say: Rapid bangs on the basement door startled her out of her misery. (specific)

If you can come up with questions about the statement, as I did above, or if the statement is so general it could fit in any story, you are probably telling. 

But what if you have trouble figuring out the specific details in a scene?

2. Write in the first person — even if the story will be in third person.  Take a troublesome scene and rewrite it from first person, get inside that character’s skin.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself, as the point of view character. 
Put yourself into the scene.  Think about what you hear, see, smell, touch, taste AND your emotional and physical reactions to those sensations.
Remember that real people can’t read minds, and can only make an educated guess at things like motivations and emotions of others unless the other character says it out loud.

Don’t say: Jessica felt miserable.  John hated her. (generic — How does it feel to be miserable?  Everyone’s experience of misery is different, so what does it mean for Jessica?  How does she know John hates her?)
Say: I wanted to weep, to curl up in a fetal postion and forget anything tragic had happened.  But I couldn’t stop myself from looking across the room at my silent accuser.  John’s face was a mask of indifference, but he must have hated me.  How could he not? (specific — This is filtered through Jessica’s experience and her thoughts.  You know what feeling miserable is for her, and you can begin to see why she thinks John hates her, even though he says nothing.)

Then, you can flip this back to third person if you need to: 

Jessica wanted to weep, to curl up in a fetal position and forget anything tragic had happened.  But she couldn’t stop herself from looking across the room at her silent accuser.  John’s face was a mask of indifference, but he must have hated her.  How could he not?

There are lots of ways to show your story, but these are my favorites.  Do you have any tricks you use to “show, don’t tell”?

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One Response

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