Show, Don’t Tell

We’ve all heard this advice, but what does it mean and how do we accomplish it? I will share some of the ways here:

1. Emotion. Liking or disliking, feeling good or feeling bad about something. How a person reacts (physically and mentally) to a circumstance. Emotion gives a character direction. The character cares about something. He reacts to something that affects it.

It’s not as simple as just telling us that your character has a certain emotion—the character has to arouse emotion in us as the reader as well. That is empathy. We are pre-conditioned to react to certain things in a certain way. Death, sex, frustration, potential danger or humiliation evokes feeling in us.

So if we’re reading about a character’s reaction to one of those things and it reminds us of our own experiences, we identify with that character. It’s a “Yeah, Me Too” kind of feeling. Then you feel like you can root for this person—you’re on the same side. Even the bad guys have a sympathetic side.

Example: From David Baldacci’s Hour Game: A serial killer has been keeping law enforcement puzzled, using a different MO with each murder. Clearly, this is a cold-blooded sociopath.

He took off his hood as he drove away. Then he did something he’d never done before. He drove directly to the home where he’d just committed perhaps his most heinous crime of all. The murdered mother was in her bedroom. Tommy was in his—the third dormer window from his left. The kids got up at seven to be ready for school. If their mother wasn’t up by then, they’d go and get her. He checked his watch; it was one o’clock now. Tommy perhaps had six more hours of normalcy. “Enjoy them, Tommy,” he mumbled to the dark window. “Enjoy them … And I’m sorry.” He drove off, licking at the salt of the tears sliding down his cheeks.

Stages of emotion:
A.Physical reaction—how the body feels
B. Behavioral response—something you do whenever a certain thing happens. For example: you stub your toe—you hop on one foot, or swear, or sit down and cry.
C. Chosen response—How you decide to respond to situations, based on your background. How you experience emotion throughout your life. For example, when someone wants to argue with you, do you clam up and say nothing or do you become red in the face, your voice rises in pitch and you spew forth in a vehement lecture?

2. Dialogue. If you write: Jane was angry. What do you feel? Do you identify with her anger? No? How about: “I hate you, you lily-livered spawn of a rattlesnake.” Rather than “telling” you she’s angry, I “showed” you with the words she used. In writing this, I don’t need to say, “You lily-livered spawn of a rattlesnake,” she said angrily. The words show the anger. Whenever possible, use action and re-action instead of taglines (said).

3. Use behavior, gestures or action, to show the character’s inner feelings. Pounding the table. Stomping out of the room. Throw something at the lily-livered… spit, peer at him through narrow squinted eyes. Physical reactions are also great ways to show emotion. (internal—stomach clenches, cold chills, legs wobble, etc.)

4. Use Props or “Vehicles”. Using an object that reflects the character’s emotion. What she wears, carries and uses becomes part of her personality. Think of items you associate with certain emotions—a favorite song, picture, a food, or a certain scene. Note how hearing the song unexpectedly or seeing the sight will arouse a distinct mood in you. A better way to characterize than straight description of hair and eye color, height, weight, etc.

Example: Melissa’s eye color doesn’t show us much about her personality, but if she wears rhinestone catseye glasses, or if she drives an old wreck of a car, or if her plaid skirt is held together with safety pins, that tells us much more about what kind of person she is.

Check back on Monday to see some additional hints for “Showing, not Telling.”

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Good advice, Heidi. I like your examples. I think part of the solution is to trust your reader to understand and resist the urge to “spell it out.”


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