I SHOW NOT TELL: What the Heck is That Anyway?
By Shirley Jump
"Don't tell us that the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream." -- Samuel Clemens
We’ve all heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell” but may not know what it means or how to do it. It’s one of those elusive things that seem impossible to capture, even harder to get down on paper. However, there are a few tricks of the trade that can help.
First, you need to know the difference between TELLING and SHOWING. Telling is abstract, passive and less involving of the reader. It slows down your pacing, takes away your action and pulls your reader out of your story.
Showing, however, is active and concrete; creating mental images that brings your story -- and your characters -- to life. When you hear about writing that is vivid, evocative and strong, chances are there’s plenty of showing in it. Showing is interactive and encourages the reader to participate in the reading experience by drawing her own conclusions.
There are several signs to look for that will indicate if you are TELLING:
1. Those nasty adverbs: Basically, anything ending in -ly is an adverb. For example:
BEFORE: “You are such a jerk,” he said angrily.
First off, you should never modify “said” with an adverb. Second, keep adverb use to a minimum. They’re not evil little words that have to be avoided at all costs, but they should be kept to a minimum. It’s far better to SHOW he was angry:
AFTER: “You are such a jerk.” Dan slammed the phone book shut and threw it at the couch. The pages ruffled open, the names inside seeming exposed and vulnerable against the stark black leather. Dan got to his feet, moving so fast his chair skidded against the floor and dented the new drywall.
Do you see the details in the second example? Nowhere did I use the word “angrily” or even “angry.” I didn’t have to say he was mad. It’s pretty clear. In fact, I didn’t even have to say he said the words. By showing with his actions right after his dialogue, you know it’s him talking.
2." Not “To Be”: Avoid the forms of this verb -- am, is, are, was, was being, will have been, could have been, et al. These not only put you in the passive tense much of the time, but they also tend to remove your reader from the action. Again, they aren’t evil words to be avoided at all costs (see I just used the verb myself) but if you can work your writing to make it stronger without the word “was” or any form of it, you’ll show more than you told.
BEFORE: The room was perfect. She saw it and was immediately transported back to her childhood because it had all the elements she remembered.
AFTER: She threw open the wide oak door and stepped into a past from twenty years ago. The bedroom she remembered, down to the last detail. Pink candy-striped walls with white trim, A thick white shag carpet, two plush maroon velvet chairs flanking a silent fireplace and an enormous canopy bed draped with a sheer white veil. Linda pressed a hand to her mouth. What were the chances?Another room, just like the one she’d had, years ago, before she’d grown up and grown out of the one space that had brought her happiness.
I don’t have the word “was” in there at all. Granted, I took a little poetic license with the rules of grammar, but you can do that. You’re the writer. You can “see” the room now, though. You can feel it, too, I hope. You can see the details that bring her back to the past, rather than just being told that it does. This gives the reader something concrete to visualize and connect with.
** Writing Exercise: Take this phrase: “It was hot.” Rewrite it without the word was. Better yet, don’t even use the word hot. Think of all the things you can use to describe heat. Make a list, if you want. Write a few sentences that SHOW the weather is hot.
3. Starting with As or -Ing: Again, as with all of the other examples, this is not a do or die rule either. However, in general, you should avoid starting a sentence with an “As” or “-ing” construction. “As she walked” or “Rapping at the door” are okay beginnings, but just okay. They’re again, telling, not showing.
BEFORE: Rapping at the door, Elaine made her presence known to the people inside the house.
AFTER: Elaine formed a tight fist with her right hand and pounded on the unforgiving oak. They’d hear her, or she’d break her hand letting them know she’d come to call.
Do you see the tighter imagery in the second example? The stronger beginning? Removing that -ing construction really helps. The same principle applies with “As” constructions.
4. Don’t just Look and Feel: Looked and felt are great words, but they certainly aren’t powerful and they certainly don’t show much. Go back to example 1. You could interchange “he looked angry” or “he felt angry” in the “he said angrily” part. Rewriting it without those words is much stronger. Telling the reader someone looks a certain way or feels a certain way is cheating the reader out of drawing her own conclusions. SHOW the reader and let her interpret.
** Helpful Hint: Study movies. In movies, they can’t TELL you anything. Everything is visual, thus, shown. How do you KNOW someone is upset, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc.? Watch movies and write down facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures, etc. Use these to describe your own characters when you’re writing. This is the best way to learn how to SHOW emotion instead of telling it.
5. Using Anything OTHER than Said for a Dialogue Tag:
Said is a perfectly good word for a conversation. Why? It becomes invisible. People see it all the time and readers skim over it. When you insert “he exclaimed” or “he screamed” or “he growled,” you are TELLING the reader how the character is acting instead of showing. Yes, you can use them from time to time (meaning, VERY rarely) but not all the time. It’s a very quick mark of a newbie writer.
Instead, you have two choices: Use “he said” or “she said” or use an action tag. Following is an example that uses both to rewrite a passage:
“You’re a jerk,” Joe grumbled. “You never tell me anything.”
“I do, too,” Jeremy whined.
“Yeah? Then how come I didn’t know there was a party tonight? How come I wasn’t invited?” Joe shouted. He started to cry and dropped into a chair.
“It’s okay,” Jeremy soothed. “It’s okay. You can still give me a gift.”
Granted, that’s an extreme example, but honest to Pete, I have read passages just like that in contests I have judged. Now see this version, which hopefully does a much better job of showing the character’s emotions. Watch their ACTIONS. What do they SHOW you? What about the dialogue? [That, BTW, my friends, is a whole other handout, but dialogue is also a showing tool]. What does that SHOW you?
Joe flung the empty beer can across the room. It pinged off the armchair and dropped onto the tile floor with a clatter, then rolled under the table with the four others that had also missed the trash can. “Jeremy, you’re a jerk. You never tell me anything.” He reached for another beer, popped the top. Didn’t bother to give one to Jeremy.
“I do, too.” Jeremy plopped onto the couch, flipped on the TV and started sofa surfing.
“Oh, yeah?” Joe ripped the remote out of Jeremy’s hands. “Then how come I didn’t know there was a party tonight for your birthday? How come I wasn’t even invited? What kind of friend does that crap?” He tossed the remote into an empty chair and turned away.
Jeremy didn’t say anything for a long time. Bill O’Reilly ranted in the background. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But look at the bright side.”
Joe spun back, and hated himself for letting hope rise in his chest. For still caring what Jeremy had to say. “What bright side?”
Jeremy grinned, that cocky one-sided smile that begged forgiveness and said he knew he had the upper hand in the relationship, all at the same time. “You can still buy me a gift. And I’ll bring you some leftover cake.”
Then he headed out the door. But not before Joe pitched his half-full beer can at Jeremy’s head. And this time, had damned good aim.
** Writing Exercise: Here’s an exercise for you to do with that -- take a word: scary, weird, ugly, etc. And then tell what it looks like. What does scary look like? Weird? Ugly? Don’t say the baby was ugly (and you know, we’ve all seen one ugly baby in our lifetimes), describe it. Don’t say the man acted weird -- tell us how he acted. SHOW us him in action.
Now, in this blog, I didn’t use a single excerpt from my current release. :-) I just made some up. I do, however, have excerpts from many of my books up on my website, if you’d like to read a bit of my work. And yes, I admit, I do sometimes cave and use the evil was word and the occasional adverb. Don’t tell my sophomore English teacher or she’ll hit me with that Warriner’s Grammar book. ;-)
My website is http://www.shirleyjump.com/ Sign up for the contest to win a chance at a $25 gift certificate to DSW.
Bio: Shirley Jump was a host of two cable-channel television shows and a co-host of a late night comedy show for two years. She is the author of over 3000 articles and 2 non-fiction books. She sold her first novel of fiction in 2001. She has since sold over 26 novels in the romantic comedy genre. She is the winner of Booksellers awards, Reviewers Choice awards, the Holt Medallian and the More Than Magic awards.
Contact her at www.shirleyjump.com, read her blog at shirleyjump.blogspot.com , join her on facebook and join her discussion group Just Write It at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/justwriteit/
Her books may be purchased at any bookseller including Harlequin, amazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.