Show, don't tell in your writing

You squeezed writing into your day and finally finished writing your book. Excited, you show it to a trusted friend. She reads the first chapter and has one piece of advice: “Show, don’t tell.”

You scratch your head, confused. Show, don’t tell? What does that even mean? And how will it make your writing better?

‘Tis Better to Show

Show, don’t tell isn’t just good advice in writing. It’s good advice in life.

Want someone to really appreciate a new culture? Don’t tell them about it. Soak them in it. Take them to a new neighborhood, state, or country.

Trying to teach your child how to fish? Don’t sit at home talking about technique. Go to the lake together. Show how to tie knots. How to bait the hook.

Showing is powerful. It gives the other person an actual experience. Something they can grab hold of and participate in.

Telling, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s distant. Impersonal. Dull. 

The same is true with writing. When you show, you get out of the way. The reader forgets you’re there. 

This allows readers to get lost in the story. Once this happens, you’ve created magic.

Which brings us to the main question.

How Do You Show in Writing?

If you want to really learn to show and not tell, there are books on the topic. But you don’t have to go that far. You just need to look for telling words. These include the following:

Wimpy Verbs

The wimpiest verbs often sit alongside adverbs—those lovely words that end in -ly. Examples: slowly, surely, quietly.

How do these weaken your writing? Take this sentence for an example:

Bobby walked slowly around the overturned wagon.

Sure, you know Bobby walked slowly, but it’s kind of bland. Want to spice it up? Use a stronger verb, such as creeping or tiptoeing

Now, Bobby crept around the overturned wagon. Bobby tiptoed around the overturned wagon. 

It’s clear, concise, and engaging.

Sensory Words

Sensory words take extra space and slow down your readers. They also break the rule we keep repeating: Show, don’t tell.

What sensory words clog up your prose? Any of them can. Hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting, and smelling—they all get in the way.

Have a character who hears something? You could write: 

Franklin heard a gunshot in the canyon.

Not bad, but not great.

A better option is to show that he heard the gunshot. How? Something like this:

A loud pop echoed in the canyon. Franklin ducked. “Gunshot,” he whispered. “Let’s go.”

Starting to understand why your teachers and friends say, “Show, don’t tell”? Good.

Emotional Words

Writing tropes aren’t the only things that get overused in writing. Emotional words do too. And strangely enough, they actually strip the emotion from your writing.

Emotional words to avoid include:

  • happy
  • sad
  • angry
  • frustrated
  • calm
  • confused
  • relieved

Don’t tell me your character is happy or sad. Show me! What does she do when she’s sad? How do you, the author, know she’s sad? Is she kicking rocks, crying, running to her room, stomping her feet, pulling her hair? Show me her emotions. Don’t tell me about them.

Telling Your Story

As you learn to show, don’t tell, your writing will improve by leaps and bounds. You’ll keep readers engaged, and they’ll love spending time with your book. Then they’ll beg for more.

Have a story that’s ready to show the world? Argyle Fox Publishing can help. Founded by authors for authors, we would love to help get your story off your computer and onto bookshelves. Submit your story for consideration today.