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Show and tell

Show the readers everything, tell them nothing. ― Ernest Hemingway

Writers are frequently admonished to show not tell, but what does that mean exactly? I’m no master yet, but Mary Buckham’s recent Body Language and Emotion class has helped a lot.

(Seriously, if you get the chance to take anything she teaches, spend the money.)

Think of the movies. The best actors are those who can convey their thoughts and emotions without saying a word. In a well-written book, the characters do the same thing.

In my own work, I have whole scenes where the characters talk and move around the imaginary space, but the scenes feel like they move too fast. They’re flat and lacking emotion.

I don’t want over-the-top drama, and there are times when it makes sense to just “tell” and move on, but part of the reader’s experience is the vicarious emotion of the characters. If we don’t give them that, they won’t come back for more. To get them involved, we not only need to tell them what the characters are doing, but more importantly, show how the characters are doing it.

Here’s an example of telling:

Jenny gave him a nervous glance. “I didn’t take it.”

Gavin didn’t believe her. He could always tell when she lied.

The passage above gets the point across, but I’m telling you what kind of look she gave him, telling you that he didn’t believe her, and telling you why. Wouldn’t it be stronger and more interesting if I showed you what each character was feeling and let you name the emotions yourself?

Here’s my effort to rewrite with nonverbal cues to show you what’s going on:

Jenny met his gaze briefly, then dropped her focus to the woolen rug near her feet. She tucked an arm across her stomach and smoothed her skirt repeatedly with her palm. “I didn’t take it.”

Gavin snorted and shook his head. She gave her away her lie with every move.

That could probably use an editor’s red pen, but still, I think the second passage is richer. It involves the reader more. I didn’t name a single emotion, but I’ll bet you figured them out anyway.

Next time your hero crosses a room, show the reader how he does it. Instead of merely walking he could stomp, stalk, or skip even. Don’t let the heroine hold a letter in her hand just to break up a paragraph of dialogue. Have her fold it into careful pleats, squeeze it in her fist, shred it, or clasp it to her chest.

Combine those actions with a few other telling, er, showing moves and your story will come to life.

We have to move our characters around their world—what Mary Buckham calls choreography—so why not make those moves mean something?

Image credit: Kuroda Seiki [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

0 Comments

  1. Clift

    Reply

    Hi Gwen – The late great teacher of creative writing, John Gardner, gave great advice on writing techniques in The Art of Fiction, starting at Chapter 5, Common Errors.
    More recently, New Yorker book-critic staffer James Wood(s) published On Reading Fiction, which helps readers tell the difference between literate fiction and schlock. And Stephen King’s nuts and bolts section in On Writing is brilliant.
    My 10 cents’ worth.
    Looking forward to your Dummies book, Gwen
    p..

    • Reply

      Thanks for the recommendations, Clift! I’m working through King’s On Writing now. One of my favorites is Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. And you can’t go wrong with just about anything by James Scott Bell. 🙂

  2. Reply

    Love the Hemingway quote, and happy that you’ve gained skills from Mary’s class. Reading your examples, I’m happy to say this is one of my writing strengths. Yay! Thanks for the confidence builder. 🙂

    • Reply

      That’s a great strength to have, Jolyse! I’ve noticed that I do it intuitively in some scenes, and skip it altogether in others. I think my action scenes are most likely to get shortchanged. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Reply

      Ah, well thanks, insearchofitall. Glad it helped. And the same principles apply to internal emotion. Instead of saying “he was angry”, his pulse could ratchet up, his face could get hot, he could have the urge to hit something… I’m sure you could come up with something more original. 😉 Thanks!!

    • Reply

      That’s how it works. When you follow someone you get the posts via email so you know there’s a new one, then you can click on the title to go to it on the web. I usually post once or twice a week. 🙂

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