The advice that a writer should show, not tell, is often trotted out. However few people go on to explain how to accomplish this, something that drives me nuts, so I decided to make a video on how to show, not tell in fiction writing. You’ll find the transcript posted below the video.
How to Show, Not Tell
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright
The beauty of Chekhov’s quote is that rather than drily admonishing the listener, he goes a step farther and shows with an illustration, rather than tells, his advice.
We as writers have vivid imaginations. Stories live in our heads long before we form them with words. Because of this, we can miss that we’ve merely jotted notes on what we see in our minds rather than birthing fully-fleshed scenes. We may discover such an omission when critique partners or editors point it out or after we allow a certain amount of time to elapse for purposes of objectivity.
At this point the story is often cold and we can no longer rely on memory in order to bring a scene alive. What to do? This is where the following five techniques for showing in fiction will save the day (and your sanity).
- Use engaging dialogue. This gives you the opportunity to deepen your characters and their interaction. Because dialogue tends to increase pacing, it’s a handy tool for showing rather than slowing the action.
- Introspection, or internal dialogue, deepens your reader’s understanding of a character. Use it to show without naming emotions like fear, worry, and love.
- Let your descriptions do double duty. Here’s an example from my novel, DawnSinger, which releases this fall: Kai crossed to one of the tall windows overlooking the inner ward with its herb garden. New growth burgeoned in all the beds, ready to erupt with life. His hands clenched into fists. He wanted to rejoice in such things. He wanted to comfort his mother. He closed his eyes, shut in by his own dark thoughts. Within the context of the story, the reader gathers that Kai is grieving without my having to state it as a fact. Put simply, the new growth in the herb garden contrasts with his sorrow at learning of a loved one’s death. You’ll notice I also use introspection as Kai wants to rejoice and to comfort his mother but cannot.
- Action helps your story come alive for the reader as he or she paints a mental picture based on what you describe. Building scenes with action is not (necessarily) about blowing something up. Action can be subtle. In my example, Kai overlooks the herb garden. This simple action provides the opportunity for the description, introspection and reaction that follow.
- Let characters react. A common mistake writers make is to forget to allow characters to respond to actions, dialogue, and introspection. When we remember reaction as a key tool, we can create powerful scenes that grab the reader. In my example, Kai clenches his hands into fists in response to viewing the herb garden. Since his isn’t a normal reaction to seeing new growth in a garden, it immediately raises a question readers will want answered, which keeps them engaged and interested. Kai’s reaction gives away his state of mind without my having to state it as troubled.
I hope my tips for showing in fiction help you past some problem areas in your own writing. I like to think I’ve presented my advice in a way that would please Chekhov.
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©2014 by Janalyn Voigt