Show, Don’t Tell: A Clear Guide

Every writer has received this comment at one point or another: “Show, don’t tell.” Usually, this is when writing needs a boost. Perhaps your descriptions fall flat, or your word choice isn’t specific enough to conjure an image in readers’ minds. Whatever the reason, your writing simply doesn’t come to life. It is bogged down by too much “telling.” Telling notifies your reader of what’s going on, but it doesn’t transport your reader into your story world. In short: Your writing is informative, but could be much more rich and stirring.

Well-crafted description can build tension, illuminate character, and make scenes come to life. It shines an evocative light on your story. When you’re told “Show, don’t tell,” remember your aim as a writer: to make a reader feel a part of the scene. Description is a vital device, but can be hard to hone. Many first-time writers struggle with their descriptions.

So, how exactly can you turn “telling” into “showing”? Follow these three tips for sharpening your description.

What to do when an editor says “Show, don’t tell”:

1. Choose power words.

Avoid vague writing and opt for language that gets as specific as possible. Using dull adjectives like “good” or “nice” are missed opportunities to invite readers into your story world. As you refine your draft hunt for lackluster words. Swap them out for more extreme or precise versions. For instance:

  • Pretty = gorgeous, elegant, ravishing, enchanting 
  • Loud = ear-shattering, thunderous, blaring
  • Cold = frigid, icy, biting, wintry
  • Tall = towering, leggy, gargantuan

Employing metaphor or simile is also a powerful way to stir vivid images. They can convey in just a few words what would otherwise take a paragraph to describe.

2. Capitalize on characters’ attitudes.

This doesn’t simply tell us what a character sees, but shows us the emotional analysis behind it, and how the character feels. Description in and of itself is boring. However, what characters choose to notice — and their attitude toward what they notice — is revealing. And, it’s much more engaging to read.

For example, let’s say you’ve written a scene that occurs in a tiny, cluttered studio apartment. And, let’s say that this apartment was the first that your character purchased on his own, upon marrying his new spouse. He might describe it as a “cozy nook to savor lazy Sunday morning coffees.” However, another character who feels trapped in this small living space — and suffocated in his marriage — would narrate it differently: “The overstuffed, mismatched furniture and towers of clutter choked the air.” By aiming to show, not tell, you give a sense of not only what something looks like, but a character’s attitude and experience. You can show much more than what’s on the surface.

3. Substitute active, specific verbs for passive language.

Verbs are a strong writer’s secret weapon. When you use active verbs, readers have a much easier time forming a picture in their minds. They become more involved in the scene. Passive language — using any form of the verb “to be” — drags down the pacing of a scene. Active language is more crisp and absorbing. Take a look at the example below, which uses a combination of active voice and specific language, to see what I mean.

Instead of this:

“There was a green vase on the windowsill. The blinds were pulled up by Monica earlier. The sun was coming in brightly.”

Try this:

“A green vase teetered on the windowsill. Monica yanked the blinds up earlier, allowing the sunlight to saturate the room.”

Do you struggle with trying to show, not tell? Reach out to me with your questions.

These tips were adapted from my award-winning book, The Novel-Maker’s Handbook: The No Nonsense Guide to Crafting a Marketable Story.

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