My Writer’s Two Cents: Show, Don’t Tell
Show, don’t tell. As writers, we’ve all heard it. So, why do you show, versus tell?
So, how do you do it? In a number of ways. And that’s the thing I love about writing – there’s always more than one way to do a thing, or achieve a desired effect. Volumes have been written on this topic and today, I’m putting in my two cents.
3 Ways to Show, Not Tell
By invoking the senses.
By staying in the present moment
By using everything else in the story as a tool to reveal character
All of these are closely related but I will attempt to discuss each separately. By invoking the senses, you’re inviting your reader into your story, orienting him or her and showing him the world, or character or conflict you’ve created.
Don’t tell your reader it’s hot. Show him the sweat on your character’s brow, as it drips between his shoulder blades, burning the cuts he got last week when he fell from the ladder he wasn’t supposed to be on in the first place. Why wasn’t he supposed to be on the ladder, you ask? Reader, I’ve just invited you into my story. Turn the page to find out more.
By staying in the present, you allow your reader to live moment by moment through your character’s struggle – a surefire way to show, not tell. By avoiding flashback, backstory and in general, anything that came before this moment in time, you can focus on what’s happening right now.
Your character is walking alone, at 5am, to the local bus station with a heavy backpack, his legs aching. He blows on his hands to keep them warm. He left his favorite tousle cap at her house. His ears are numb. He checks his phone constantly for messages. He finds a corner of the bus terminal to huddle into and carefully unzips the backpack. Andrew Jackson’s face peers back at him a dozen times from behind the neatly wrapped bundles.
Instead of telling you he just robbed a bank, or that his girlfriend broke up with him, the writer allows the story to unfold moment by moment, and piques the reader’s curiosity. This isn’t time for instant gratification. It’s time to invite the reader along on this characters’ journey.
By using everything else in the story to reveal your character, the writer puts the story to work for herself, and delights the reader. ‘Everything’ includes the setting, the characters’ choices, his impressions, reactions, his friends, enemies, etc.–they all play into revealing your character. How do his friends treat him? With respect, or envy, or pity? What about his enemies? Why is he nice to the bum on the street? Why does he show up night after night at the same bar, but doesn’t take a drink? Why does he live in the city, versus the country?
Carefully chosen details and story elements all work to reveal character, and invite the reader on a journey of discovery without you, the writer, saying a word.
What methods do you use to show, not tell, and reveal your characters, and your story?
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