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