Show vs Tell: 3 tips to improve your writing
Show vs Tell: 3 tips to improve your writing
For sale: baby shoes, never worn
– Ernest Hemingway
What’s the deal with show and tell, and why is it important?
Understanding how to show instead of tell is crucial to producing effective, elegant prose. You see this understanding in most examples of good writing.
Writing that ‘tells’ means exposition, explanation, info-dump dialogue where one character says to another, “Let me tell you about it from the start…”. When readers see this, they lose confidence in the writer. They put the book down and move on.
Take that famous Hemingway story, the tragedy captured in only six words, the lives destroyed by the death of a baby. Perhaps with a hint of hope in the symbolic act of selling the shoes. The story is said yet unsaid, ambiguous, told in implications. It’s told in the spaces between the words.
Here are 3 tips to improve your writing
1. Control the tone with correct word choices
Tone is crucial to a good story. When thinking of how to show not tell in writing, the correct words convey the correct tone, which readers tap into subconsciously. A comedy is different from a drama which is different from a thriller. If the tone is not in harmony with the story, a reader will see this.
Of course, you can also set the tone with descriptive imagery (think of all those dark and stormy nights), but too much description may make the text stodgy. The better way is to use correct tonal words.
Here’s the opening from Jack London’s White Fang
Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness.
Look at all the ‘down’ words he uses in just 4 sentences: dark, frowned, frozen, stripped, black, ominous, fading, silence, desolation, lifeless, lone, cold, sadness. These words are not simply there to set the scene: he is showing us everything we need to know about the story ahead. No one is going to read that and expect a comedy!
If you’re writing a comic scene, look for upbeat funny sounds, words with a k or a g. Yiddish, probably the funniest sounding language is full of these sounds, klutz, shmuck, meshuggener
If it’s an exciting scene, use short, sharp words and sentences. Here’s a brief example of how to show not tell in writing thrillers from Max Barry’s Lexicon, a chase scene through an airport:
He sat up, remembering Cecilia. Also the shotgun. And, now he thought about it, how about some security? Where were they? Because it was an airport. It was an airport! He grabbed the handrail, intending to pull himself up to look for security, but his knees went in opposite directions and he tumbled down the rest of the way. Body parts telegraphed complaints from faraway places. He rose. Sweat ran into his eyes. Because the head fog wasn’t confusing enough; he needed blurred vision.
Note all the short sentences, how he uses pace and rhythm to control the flow of the story. When a long sentence comes, it’s kinetic instead of descriptive, so keeps the action going. As for word choices, what’s interesting here is the lack of modifiers; you could argue there’s not a single descriptive adjective in the whole paragraph.
Remember: word choices are as much about what you take away as what you add.
All these are examples of good writing. Consider them next time you’re thinking about showing not telling and word choices.
One more thing in the Max Barry example. It’s interesting also to see how the viewpoint character’s mental state is conveyed in this section. He uses snappy questions to self to convey his confusion, and repetitions (“an airport“) to show his agitation. This too is a great example of how to show and not tell in writing.
2. Avoid explanation
Reader’s are smart. It’s easy to forget this when you’re eyeballs deep in a story. Will they get what I mean? Maybe if I add this explanation to the dialogue, or to some introspection… Before you know it your story becomes stodgy, boring, a chore to read.
Don’t tell readers two and two equals four – give them a couple of twos and let them work it out themselves.
Look for dialogue with subtext, single gestures that convey a whole personality.
Look again at the Hemingway quote. We’re not told the baby’s dead; the shoes could have been bought in a sale. Because Hemingway is showing not telling, we work it out from the implications, the side glances, those last two heartbreaking words, never worn.
I tried to do a similar thing with my story Calculations, which is out in the December issue of The Incubator Journal – which you can read here
Here’s the opening paragraph:
I’m on toothbrush number thirteen, but only toothpaste number ten. I do the calculations, dividing days by number of brushes, allowing for an average squeeze size. Eventually I work out that for every ninety-two brushes I go through a new toothbrush, but only two-thirds of a tube of paste. That wastes ten minutes.
The character is obsessively calculating things to fill his mind. This immediately asks a story question: what is he trying not to think about? As the story goes on, he does more and more calculations, constantly trying not to think about something, but he can’t help it. Eventually, that which he is trying to avoid impinges on the calculations themselves. So although the reason for his obsessive calculating is never explicitly given, enough hints are (hopefully) revealed for the reader to work out what happened. This is a prime example of showing not telling in writing.
3.If you must explain, hide it in drama
Sometimes, you have no option but to explain something, a plot point, some character motivation. If that’s the case, avoid dry ‘telling’ by hiding the exposition in drama. Here’s a quick example.
Jim – Where did the spy put the microfilm?
Bob – I think he put it in the flowers.
Now, with conflict injected:
Jim: Help me find the microfilm, damn it!
Bob: Perhaps if you weren’t so incompetent, you’d be able to find it.
Jim: How dare you talk to me like that?
Bob: (pointing to the flowers): How dare you be so incompetent.
Remember, every aspect your writing must maximize the engagement with your readers. If you get this right, they will love you for it.
I hope these quick tips have given you some ideas of how to show not tell in writing.
Got a writing question about showing not telling in writing- or about anything else? Just ask in the comments box and I’ll get back to you.