Show, don’t tell

We’ve all heard it said but what does it mean?

Whether we are writing a piece of fiction or content for our business there are some rules and one of them is ‘show, don’t tell’.

We know human beings are wired to stories, from as far back in our history as ochre images on cave walls.  If you want to communicate anything storytelling is the best way of getting your message across.

If you want your reader to resonate with you story – to see it in their minds, to smell it or ‘feel’ it then you must aim to ‘show’ them your story.

You want your reader to feel what you or your character feel.

One of the best quotes on this subject is from Anton Chekov

‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

How do you do this?

Describe what your character is sensing or the body language he is using. 

For example – which gets your attention?

‘I heard a crash and ran to see what had happened.’

Or…

‘My breath caught in my chest, the sound – a sudden, clang rang loud in the silent night.  I stumbled, my feet hitting cold, hard tiles in my haste to check it out.’

You can feel or at least imagine a person so shocked that their breath caught in their chest for a few seconds.  You can imagine them stumbling and the cold on their feet. 

In a piece of business writing let’s use someone giving interview advice for job candidates.

You could write

‘When you go for an interview you may feel nervous.  How can you appear to be more confident?’

Or you could say…

‘We’ve all been there – a dry mouth, clammy hands and a blank mind where our carefully prepared interview answers should be.  Take a breath, remember that your interviewers are probably as nervous as you are.  Stand up straight, shake their hands firmly and smile like you mean it.’

Which version are you more likely to be able to visualise or imagine yourself in? 

Why else is it important?

1.It gives a stronger sense of your character.  Rather than telling people your character is a bully use dialogue and body language to demonstrate their behaviour.

‘Donald is a bully’

Or

‘Just do it now,’ his jaw set into a hard line, ‘or don’t bother coming in tomorrow.’  The door slammed behind him as he strode out of the room.’

2.It gives a much more powerful sense of your story’s location or setting.  Which office can you visualise more easily, below?

‘He walked into his empty office.

‘He stood and gazed at the grey expanse.  The pristine tiled floor reflected the harsh strip lights.  A glass desk with obligatory Flow ECO chair in winter white behind it.’

3.Try to keep the description proportionate to the importance of what you are describing.  If you’re character is walking through Oxford Street, unless it tells us something important that moves the story forward, for example, she sees someone relevant to the story, then don’t spend a lot of time on it. 

Or if it reveals something significant about your character for example, she felt her breath catch, the sense of being trapped in a limited space, surrounded by people.  We now know that your character struggles with being in busy places or around a lot of people. 

Read paragraphs by your favourite authors and see if you can picture the scene they describe or if it gives you a better sense of their characters.  That is the best way to learn how to do it in your own writing.

Author: nicolejohnstoncomms

With two decades of professional writing experience, I am a ghostwriter, content creator and writing coach. I help busy people realise their dreams of finishing their books.

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