Telling is narrative summary—no specific setting, characters, or dialogue—written by you, the author, because you know the story and its scenes and characters, so you end up telling us your story by communicating facts.
• The bad guys shot out the tires on the good guys’ SUV.
• Clarion was a mean warrior.
• Anna bought a nice old desk.
• I’ll never forget how miserable I felt after my dog died.
• Thrilled that he had won the big poker game, Carlos made a fool of himself.
• From the way she behaved in the crowded pub, you could tell Beatrice was attracted to the handsome stranger in the black shirt.
Showing a story is told from your main characters’ eyes, ears and other senses via description, action and dialogue. This allows understanding by using sensory details that are understandable to many readers: colors, weights, sizes, smells, sounds, etc. After all, showing is a sensual experience.
Potato chip crumbs in a man’s mustache say a great deal about his overall laziness and lack of ambition without saying so. A tree in which its limbs look like an exhausted fighter is appealing to the senses, not a tree that simply looks terrible. And a Rottweiler’s low growl that explodes into a heart-stopping bark is far more active and descriptive than writing that the barking dog scared you.
When writing, close your eyes and imagine what you would smell, hear, taste, see, and feel in your characters’ situation. Then do your best to capture the most important of those impressions as vividly—and uniquely—as possible. You want the scene to have immediacy for your reader. When you tell, you are usually looking at the scene but not listening or touching or smelling or tasting. You’re not slowing down long enough to capture the most outstanding details that
- define a character;
- clarify an action;
- help establish or intensify the mood;
- give the reader a reason to feel the emotions you want to express.
When defining your main characters, choose unique and extraordinary characteristics so that your readers could pick them out of a lineup.
Over time, personality becomes etched into the lines of the face and body, so emphasize a physical characteristic that reveals character. Do the angular planes of your hero’s face turn the soft light against it into a study in contrasts? Are his high cheekbones angry slashes, a sentiment echoed by the frown between his brows? Does your heroine hunch her shoulders as if she’s fighting a strong wind? Is her red hair braided so tight it looks like a licorice stick?
Adjectives and adverbs tell; they never move the action forward. When clarifying an action, verbs show. For example, an escalator that is tall and silver and filled with shoppers has little movement in the story. If, however, that escalator looms over you, mocking you with its steely teeth and sending shoppers to a place where a killer awaits, we have a whole different feel for the story as it moves us forward.
When writing action and mood intensifiers, look for adjectives and adverbs and nondescript words in your writing and get rid of them. They ate almost all the cake. What does this mean? Who are “they” and was there one piece of cake left or ten? Did they eat the top layer and leave the bottom?
Strong and exciting verbs show your story’s action and make your writing vivid and real. The boys dove into the cake, leaving nothing but a pile of crumbs. Now we knew who ate the cake, and how much remained.
Writing is emotionally powerful when it engages us—your readers—and shows specific details that enable us to reach a particular conclusion. The bell rang, startling Raven, and she bumped her textbook and sent a sheaf of papers tumbling to the floor. She had to wait until her classmates had clambered over her to clean up the mess. Her face hot, she stuffed the pages into her bag, jammed her pen into her purse, and stood so fast she nearly knocked over the man who stood there.
If you connect all the dots and then announce the conclusion for our benefit, the writing is less engaging for us.
Or, to put it another way, show smoke, and let us infer fire.
Here are rewrites of the earlier examples from the beginning of this article, this time showing the reader what’s happening. Note two things. First, that there are almost no adjectives—all sentences are carried by strong verbs. Second, I used only the sensory information that I believed most important.
• I heard gunfire. Both of the front tires burst, dropping my SUV onto its axle. Metal screamed against asphalt, and a shower of sparks hissed past my open door.
• Clarion rode with the rest of the knights, but always two horse-lengths ahead, ensuring “first kicking rights” to any commoners coming along and hoping for a scrap of food.
• Anna bought a solid oak, roll-top desk made in 1855 that contained a secret drawer triggered by a hidden spring.
• Oreo has been dead for three months. Dreams of him awake me at night. This morning I reached for his leash still hanging on my key hook next to the front door before I remembered.
• “Your silly blank stare was useless against my superior intellect!” Carlos laughed, as the vanquished lingerie model stared at him. “I have taken the pot with nothing more than a pair of threes. My bluff utterly destroyed your ass! Ha ha hah!”
• Beatrice tossed her hair and smiled from her table. The stranger at the bar had been scanning the room, and he noticed her this time. Wait—had he just put his hand over his heart? Or was he just brushing something off of his shirt? That shirt looked soft, she thought before she casually looked away, twirling a curl. She let her eyes bounce from random face to random face in the crowd, and found another excuse to toss her hair and smile. Carefully turning her profile, she crossed her legs the way she and her girlfriends had practiced in middle school. That should do it, she thought.
Go through every sentence of your manuscript and make sure three things are true:
1. Every word furthers the story, moves us forward and shows us something crucial. This is why it’s important to choose a few details, not overload the reader with every. single. one.
2. You have used vivid verbs—not sitting-there adjectives—to show your readers what is happening.
3. You have closed your eyes and thought about the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches in each scene. That you have shown your reader enough of that sensory information that they are experiencing the scene the same way you are.
Finally, there are times when it’s better to tell. Here are a few of those times:
• During transitions. When you just need to get from one day to the next, don’t worry about the evening sunset, the darkness of night, and the morning mist. Just say something like “The next day…”
• When you’re summarizing something that happened during a transition. Let’s say your character had a fight with her boyfriend before she left for work in the morning, and you want to convey that she has an okay rest of the day. You can write something like, “She made it through class and the rest of the afternoon without incident” and let it go at that.
• When you’re talking about a minor character not important to the story.
Know when and how to show and tell your story effectively.