It is the advice we are all sick of hearing. “Show, Don’t Tell.” The cardinal rule of storytelling. It’s good advice. Vital even. It is the difference between a good story and a gripping novel. And it sounds like it should be simple but often it isn’t. So here are three quick tips on how best to avoid the traps and keep the critics happy.
1. Get in the right mindset.
I fell across this pin the other day and it inspired me to write this post. Because it isn’t just readers that are guilty of this, it is writers too. I know when I’m writing, I can often see the scenes like a movie playing in my head. The problem is, this often translates down onto the paper. Admittedly, I have a screen writing background so I’m more prone to falling into the trap but I’ve seen it in all the work I’ve proofed for friends too. The movie thing is a double-edged sword. On one side, you have such a clarity of vision you can feel it in the depth and vision of the work. On the other side, it tempts us to play director and the principle of that position is telling, not showing.
It is a simple test. When you read back your descriptive passages, do they read like stage directions? Stage directions are instructions to an actor at the end of the day. A book should go so much deeper. It shouldn’t just tell us that he smiles, it should tell us why. A screen play is clinical. It is information only. A book is about artistry.
Tell: He smiles.
Show: His heart lifted in his chest and he couldn’t help the smile that stretched across his face.
The trick is (in theory) simple. A book should read like a movie (show), not like a script (tell).
2. Get Emotional, not Happy
A quick check to find any moments of telling is to do a “Go-Find” on all major emotions (Happy, Sad, Angry, Shocked… etc…) and purging them. These things should be conveyed through body language and dialogue.
Tell: She was shocked
Show: She stumbled backwards, her eyes wide, “What?”
They are simple fixes that make a massive difference to the flow and feel of the book. A useful tip is to keep character sheets and as part of them, keep a list of common gestures they use. I tend to have:
How they laugh: Are they a chuckler? A giggler? Or a big hearty hoot?
How they show irritation/annoyance: Are they sarcastic? Is it a roll of the eyes? Do they raise their eyebrows?
Nervous ticks: Scratching ones ear? Shifting weight from foot to foot? Fiddling with her hair?
Do they have a particular thing they do when they are thinking? What about when they are scared? How do they react to things that make them angry?
Plus any that I find myself using as I progress through the project. Far aside from aiding with the show, don’t tell issue, it helps with character development and consistency across the book.
At the end of this post is a useful list I always keep knocking around of key body language cues:
3. Watch Character Description
Another good “Go-Find” exercise is searching for common adjectives like “Beautiful”, “Pretty”, “Simple” etc… Each writer knows their own tendencies and which ones suit their particular project. That is not to say it is a bad thing to use a single adjective to quickly give an overview of a character but technically, this is a telling moment.
Tell: She was beautiful.
Show: Under the moonlight, he couldn’t take his eyes away from her. No one could. She had all their eyes and she glowed beneath their gazes.
JK Rowling is a particular pro at describing characters without ever telling you, she always shows you. If you are ever looking for a masterclass, read The Cuckoo’s Calling. She has some beautiful moments of description in that one.