Here’s a list of quick tips to keep in mind that should help you show, not tell:
1. Use specific details.
The best are ones that are really specific. Is the car a Toyota or a Volkswagen? Is it cherry-red or apple-red? Does the man sit in a La-Z-Boy or a Barcalounger? Brand names help the reader identify with things better, too. Also, the more concrete your details are, the more your reader can get a visual picture. One way to do this is to take a simple sentence and increase it with details by adding to it (example from http://www.uoflife.com/wc/creative/concrete.htm):
• My lawn was covered with leaves.
• Leaves blew through my yard and piled up against the shrubs and fence.
• A cold autumn breeze blew leaves through my yard. I stared out the window and watched them pile up against the sparse shrubs and worn out fence.
• A cold autumn breeze blew leaves through my yard. Summer had ended and I would be the last one to leave the cabin. I sat alone, holding a mug of hot chocolate without drinking, and stared out the back window, watching the red, gold, and brown leaves pile up violently against the sparse shrubs and worn out fence. I had long since given up caring about anything.
2. Use sensory images:
Add in all five senses. If you’re describing a beach, don’t just talk about the heat or the color of the sand; add in the smell of Coppertone, the feel of the sand beneath your toes, the sound of the seagulls, etc. The more you can create a world for your reader by adding sensory details, the more she’ll be drawn into your writing.
3. Use good comparisons for your metaphors - not clichés. Metaphors can be a great way to show (Ex: No wonder the dog barked all the time. She had all the courage of a ninety-pound knight about to undertake his first jousting match. From KISSED BY CAT by Shirley Jump, February 2005). But you want to be unique. You don’t want to compare your things to the same tired old things that everyone else has used. When in doubt, use Shirley’s Rule of Six (which is a whole other workshop in and of itself. If you want more on that, I have an online YahooGroup, called Just Write It, and we do workshops there).
4. Vary Your Sentence Structure. Go back to the example with the bedroom and see how a varied sentence structure can keep the reader on her toes, paying attention to the writing. It’s also a great tool to use when you want to show suspense or fear (use shorter sentences) or draw out suspense (use longer sentences). Or emphasize a point with a sentence set out by itself (check the example below for how varied sentence lengths can show the character hurrying, show her reaction, show the action in the scene).
Example: From The Dress, by Shirley Jump, in Christmas Weddings, October 2008
“Damn!” Marietta broke into a run, the dress banging against her back as she wove in and out among the crowds, negotiating her way through the milling passengers and down the long, long concourse toward gate C-31.
She narrowly missed a collision with an elderly man in a Santa hat and green plaid shirt pushing a wheelchair carrying a woman wearing a matching hat. A mother in a snowman decorated skirt pushing a stroller, followed by three little girls, all in coordinated snowflake jumpers. A man taking a picture of the decorations at a fast food restaurant--why, Marietta didn’t pause to think. A janitor cleaning up a spilled coffee, humming a Christmas song as he mopped.
And then, finally, she spied the signs for Gate C-29, Gate C-30--
It took a second for her brain to process his image, her mind cartwheeling through the flurry of activity around her, trying to fit this anomaly in, as if playing “What doesn’t belong?”--
A father lecturing a son about running too far ahead. A weary pregnant woman collapsing into the nearest seat. An overstuffed carry-on bag exploding, revealing an embarrassment of red and white lingerie in the middle of the aisle--
And still, Reed Hartstone.
Reed? Here? Now? Why?
Her attention on him, not on where she was going, Marietta stumbled, her foot caught on the corner of a suitcase left in the aisle. She felt her weight twist on one ankle, while the rest of her was still trying to move in the opposite direction.
Her leg crumpled, a quick, sharp pain shooting up from one high-heeled boot all the way to her thigh and she winced, gasped, then straightened, still half-sure she was seeing things. “Reed?”
In the space of a breath, her mind processed every inch of him. Six feet two, short dark brown hair, deep blue eyes so dark they were almost black, a lean figure with broad shoulders, the kind a woman could lean on when she needed to, but also the kind that stayed in her line of sight long after the rest of him walked away. Her gut tightened--damn, still she reacted to him, all these years later--and she reminded herself there was a very good reason they were no longer together. “What are you doing here?”
A grin as familiar as the beat of her own heart curved across his face. “I could say the same as you. But let me guess. Still globe-trotting. Making your fortune or--“
And then his gaze caught the garment bag over her shoulder, the bride pictured on the front, the bit of white embroidered satin still sticking out of the open zipper, the part that she hadn’t managed to fit back in, in her rush to get away from the nosy guard and on her way again. She glanced at it, about to explain, when Reed beat her to the punch and added two and two. “--or getting married.”
5. Use specific actions to make your point. Don’t say things like “he had a reputation for driving like a maniac” -- show him driving like a maniac. Let us see him doing those things. Or, you can have other characters talk about him, too. Dialogue can be a great showing tool.
6. Use dialogue as a showing tool (duh! You knew that one was coming). Dialogue is wonderful for bringing out information. Don’t do the recap kind of dialogue “oh, don’t you remember, she’s your real mother because your sister had an affair with your father and then we all passed you off like a sibling” kind of thing. That’s information the other character would already know. However, you can do something like:
“I hate Julia.”
“She did the best she could,” Kenny said. “What choice did you expect her to make at fifteen?”
“A different one than pretending I was her sister, for God’s sake. All this time, I’ve grown up thinking I’m somebody else’s daughter.” Anne slammed the refrigerator door shut. Inside, the mayonnaise shuddered against the salad dressing. “If she was old enough to have a kid, she was old enough to admit the truth.”
Kenny shoved his sandwich away, as if the bologna no longer interested him. “This family is really good at secrets. If there was a Guinness record for the most lies ever told, we’d have it.”
He sighed, then met her gaze. “Your father really is your father.”
(Now, look at this example below and analyze what the dialogue SHOWS about the characters. How does it SHOW the sexual tension? SHOW the hidden secrets? SHOW the conflict? SHOW the bit of backstory that Allie is hiding?)
From Really Something by Shirley Jump, December 2007:
“Did you give a bad forecast and now everyone hates you? Nicolas Cage already made that movie, you know.”
Duncan glanced toward the house, then back at her. “Something like that.” He paused a moment, then released the spade. Set deep in the dirt, it stayed upright. “I’ve had a hell of a day and I’d like to end it on a nice note. Would you like to go to dinner? You and me. No strings.”
She considered him. Considered playing with fire a second time. “Will you let me plead my case about your property?”
“Only if you let me plead my case about kissing you again.”
One corner of her mouth turned up. Traitorous hormones, staging a mutiny. He was the enemy. To her family, her goals. But every time she tried to remember that—
Well, she forgot.
Was that Coppertone she smelled, too?
Work. Concentrate on work. She’d get the job done, then leave Duncan in the Tempest dust.
“Dinner?” Duncan asked again. He grinned at her, and she lost the battle with sound reasoning.
7. Don’t pad it too much. Don’t overwhelm the reader with description either. You’re not writing a travelogue, you’re writing a story. Add enough details to give them a picture, then move on to the meat of your story. If you have several paragraphs in a row of description, chances are you’ve gone overboard. Try to work the description in with the dialogue and action instead so you can maintain your pacing and reader interest.
8. Don’t be afraid of telling sometimes, too. A mix of both showing and telling is a good idea. You don’t have to show every single thing in your book. Sometimes, a quick telling helps get through a slow part or provides a quick recap. The goal is to make the MAJORITY of your writing vivid and strong (i.e., showing) and keep the telling to a minimum.
Show…don’t tell…and you’ll power-up your story! And for extra credit, you can go back to those above examples and look for touches of all eight tips in those passages ;-).
You may purchase Shirley's book at any bookseller's store. Click here for a direct link to amazon.com