Saturday 15 November 2014

Show don't tell

If there is one thing I am constantly being asked about it is 'show don't tell.' Showing is all about allowing the reader to experience and emotionally engage with the story rather than just telling them what happened. I should add there is always a place for a small amount of telling but the majority of times you can show it better. This is something I tell my students/writers - ask your manuscript 'can I show this better?' If you could do so. If not tell it.

Showing helps the reader believe in the story and live vicariously through your main character. They become part of the story. I am sure you can all remember stories where you've become so involved in the story it has become real to you. Well that is 'good showing.'

When you are telling you are instructing the readers what they are thinking and what they need to believe about the story. It is passive. Showing is all about personal interpretation. You are actually making the reader work, engaging with them and it is most effective if the reader identifies with your main character. When you are showing what you doing is leaving clues and hints on the page as to how the characters are feeling and what they are doing. It is then up to the reader to pull them all together to create the images you want them to. For example:


Paul was angry.


Paul slammed the door when he came in. His eyes were cold and hard as he stared at me. Pounding his fists on the table he shouted, 'What did you think you were doing?'

See you haven't actually mentioned he was angry once but hopefully the reader knows the fact without being told. As a reader you are involved in what is going on.

You can use action, dialogue, thoughts, description, body language and feelings when showing. Remember to use all your character's senses too don't just rely on sight and hearing. Importantly these all add up to scenes. Scenes need to move the story forward  all the time. Telling may occasionally be used to slow the pace down however. Don't info dump if you can avoid it that tends to stop the story dead. Weave those details in. Showing is all about convincing your reader that your world is real and believable. You have to ensure that your reader will also care about your main characters.

Dialogue must always serve a purpose too. It must move the plot forward or give more information about the character. Don't have a wasted conversation about nothing to fill space or use up words. Do not use dialogue for exposition either. If you do you are likely to lose your reader.

One thing to avoid are those wonderful 'ly' words - you definitely need to show that rather than telling the reader. Also work on the details. These are things that can make your work come to life. They can really lift the narrative. Don't just say it is a car but give a specific one because it immediately creates an image and that image also gives clues. For example and taking the car- the story is going to be very different one if your character is driving an old mini with one door that is missing than one that is driving a sleek red Ferrari - don't you think?

As a writer telling a scene is much easier than showing it and often in your first draft there will be loads of telling but don't worry you can go back and sort that out. It is hard work to show a story. Get the story down first and then work on it. We all do it.

I was asked once whether 'show not tell' even applied to children's books too - YES it most certainly does! Children love to become totally lost in their stories. They are passionate about their characters. Show them good stories.

This is just a very brief post on a what is a very large topic but I hope it gives you some answers and something to think about.

On a more personal note I went back to work this week after a long period off. I have a had a huge amount of support from some great friends. It has been wonderful. I have had some lovely emails, messages, cards and a some total surprises through the post - CDs, a hug in a scarf, a diary full of poetry,vouchers champagne and a fox. All totally unexpected and so delightful. I cannot thank you all enough. You helped me get through an incredibly difficult time.

I love this and it is for all my friends. 'I am just glad to be here and glad to have you by my side'