We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell” but I prefer to tell folks “show more, tell better.” This is something I use in every Show and Tell workshop I give (and I’m doing one for the RWA FF&P Chapter this July.) There’s a good reason for this. Narrative is actually vital in fiction—there are places where you need to smooth a transition or introduce a scene or a character and ‘telling’ or narrative works best. However, within a scene, it is vital to ‘show’ more of the character’s emotions through the character’s actions.
Like much of the craft of writing, you have to learn how to balance showing and telling by doing—meaning you have to write—and the amount of showing or telling you do varies by the story and the intent of the author. This is part of your voice as a writer. However, there are some good guidelines that can help you with all of this:
– Where are we? A reader needs to be placed into the story and into every new scene. Do not throw your readers into the deep end without giving them some help, and that means use some narrative to set the story, and you can use narrative to set every scene. This is VERY important if you are writing a story that is set somewhere other than our own reality. The reality of your world must be woven into the story. Use vivid details, meaning weave in as many of the five senses as possible—smells, sounds, tastes, touch, and not just sights.
– When are we? This is just as important as where, and this does not mean not just the era. Think about the details of the time of the year. What’s the weather like? Is it day or night? Is it cold, warm, windy? What are the smells? All these details help the reader settle into the scene as if this moment in time really exists.
– Who is here? An introduction to the characters, particularly to the main characters for that scene and for the story, is important. I’m not talking a laundry list of descriptions, but the reader does need more than tall, dark and handsome. Think about what makes THAT character stand out. What is different about him or her? Is there a scar or a limp? How about height or weight? What about hair? What is the first thing that anyone would notice? Use unique features to start to make characters come to life for the reader. Think of your description as brush strokes of a watercolor that suggests images.
– Why are we here? This doesn’t have to be greatly detailed information, but you need enough background to make a reader care. It’s one of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writers: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”
As with all writing, you want to edit, polish, revise and make your narrative wonderful. Cut every extra word. Use active voice. Use the right words in the right way. Brilliant narrative is invisible—if a reader is noticing your writing, that reader has fallen out of the story.
Now all this needs to be woven together, stitched in with careful threads. Do not dump tons of narrative into the story—unless it really is brilliant. Narrative can also be woven in with a scene—in other words, it’s never show or tell. These two things can go together.
But what’s good ‘showing’ in a story?
– Punch your dialogue so it’s strong. Know that your dialogue is weak if you find yourself leaning on tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are TELLING the reader an emotion. You want to get your characters onto the page by showing how that person expresses emotion. That includes making the dialogue so good that the reader knows the emotion in the words without having to be told. Another way to think of this is to imagine you are writing a script for your favorite actors—give them great dialogue to speak.
– Eliminating every “feel” or “felt”. That is a spot where you flat out told the reader the emotion. Let your characters take actions that express their emotions, and trust the reader to figure things out. This goes along with those tags being used to prop up dialogue. When you say, “He felt angry.” That’s weak to the reader because the reader has nothing to visualize. Every person gets angry in different ways—some folks bottle it up, some turn red, some go pale, some folks yell, some start to cry, some shout. Get your characters onto the page by having them express emotions. It takes more time and more words, but it makes the characters come to life for the reader.
– Keep asking ‘what am I showing the reader about this character’? If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super. Readers will believe what you show a character doing, not what you tell the reader.
– Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.
For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description—lovely telling. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blonde, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of SHOWING the enmity between these women. That’s where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for showing these two women being bitchy with each other.
– Do remember to get emotions onto the page. This is where characters are doing a lot of things, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about events. Maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story jumps in to save a boy from zombies. Awesome! She grabs the boy and chops up the zombie with an ax. Great stuff. But what is she feeling? Is she frightened? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go out on his own? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops shouldn’t show emotion?
You have to know your characters to get this onto the page and to do so without resorting to telling the reader a flat “she felt angry that he hadn’t listened to her and had almost died.”
Above all else, if you show, you don’t need to tell. And if you tell, you don’t need to show. Repetition can be useful in places, but with showing and telling if you do both, it conveys to the reader that either you don’t really know what you are doing or you don’t think the reader is very smart. Readers do not like being hit over the head with endless repetition. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. See—even me repeating just a little bit here starts to become boring. Trust your readers—they are actually very smart. And take to heart the phrase—show more, tell better.