How to Master the Art of Showing Not Telling When Writing

Many editors have advised me to show more and tell less. If you write fiction I am sure you have heard this. It in itself seems like a simple concept. In practice, it is hard to do.

When I sit down at my computer it is a thought that is my constant companion. It should be on your mind when you sit on your desk chair. The edge biting into your legs as you shuffle to get comfy. Fingers hammering on the keys as cramp starts to take hold of your wrist. Your heart beating faster as you attempt to get your protagonist out of one more scrap. A dull ache behind your eyes. The sense of dread rising in your stomach as you realise what in front of you is crap.

You probably think that was a long introduction, but as you can see even with factual writing you can show not tell. You need to influence your readers with words. To do this you need to stir the senses, emotions and intellect. In the example above, I was attempting to paint a picture, I was using language as persuasion.

By using the showing technique you plant a concrete conception in the reader’s mind. A good writer will make a reader believe in their fictional world. They will form a television reel with their imagination. Ask yourself when you start – what do you want the reader to feel and think? Then decide what senses you need to evoke to stimulate those feelings.

Telling is like watching an advert for your favourite chocolate. It is fleeting and forgettable. Showing is the same as eating, the chocolate. I’m pretty sure I know which you would rather do.

How to show in your writing

To show a reader you need to use persuasive language. You need to stimulate their imagination. Telling is dull compared to that, like a black and white television.

Let’s think about our chocolate bar. I could tell you it’s a large bar of chocolate in a green and brown wrapper.

Or.

As you hold the bar in your hand, you feel the soft silky coating. You take a bite and heard the hard shell crack as you taste the soft, bubbly chocolate in your mouth. You lift the bar up as you let it melt on your tongue and smell the sweet aroma of mint, observing the bubbly texture.

Not only have I allowed you to eat a mint aero with me, but I have used all your five senses to do it. You need to use as many senses as possible to draw your reader in. I would advise not to use all senses in every area of your writing. This makes the text too lengthy. Rely on sight, which is our main sense and use the other four to support.

Can you ever use tell?

A common weakness of many writers is to show and then tell in the next sentence.

But, showing too much can also have its problems as it slows the pace down. I’m not a fan of Stephen King. I know shocking, for me his descriptions are too in-depth and the pace too slow. Reading is subjective, we should always remember that. You will never please every reader.

My advice is to be selective in what you include. Ensure the content you show has a purpose in the main plot. Describe the main characters, more than you would an extra.

Putting it all into practice.

Using these techniques is the hardest part. Even though I have described the process here, it is still a part of writing I struggle with. You need to practice the techniques. You wouldn’t expect to be able to program your computer after watching a couple of ‘how-to’ videos. Learning by doing is the most effective way of cementing knowledge.

Once you have mastered this you will become confident in your abilities. You may even start enjoying the process.

Start by putting down the concept you want to convert. ‘Sam has her driving test.’ Have a clear idea of the emotions you want to share – anxiety, nerves, fear. Then work on the piece and write engaging prose that demonstrates that.

This won’t happen overnight. The more you practice, as with any skill, the easier it gets. Good literature will have you walking in another person’s shoes. The reason we read is to be transported to another world. Help your readers journey, by showing not telling.

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