Three More Tips on Show, Don’t Tell

Ooh! Me! Pick me!

Most writing teachers talk about show, don’t tell in terms of avoiding explanations and increasing concrete sensory details. These techniques are vital. But to master show, don’t tell, here are some lesser-known writing tips.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s take a look at some other ways to attain “show, don’t tell”in your fiction.

Manage Readers Lightly

You’ve heard me say that writers manage their readers. We instruct our readers to Look at this, remember that, ignore this, or slow down or speed up, depending on how we want them to react.

Yet, when we control our readers too aggressively, they don’t have a chance to use their own imaginations. For example, when we write, “He stepped six inches to his left,” we’re managing so tightly that it actually stops readers. They must pause to figure out whether it’s his left or their own left and visualize how long six inches is. Any pause in reading gives your precious reader a chance to escape–and you don’t want that.

Instead, try using comparisons and less specific directions and measures. If you write, “The sink hole was 43 feet long and 217 feet deep on the left side,” readers must pause to process those measurements. If you simply compare using a familiar object such as a bus, readers get an instant picture. And which left was it? Your left or the hole’s left (facing you)? Rewrite as, “The sink hole left a gash as long as a bus. One side was deep but the other seemed to plummet for miles.”

Make Those Verbs Work

While description would seem key to show, don’t tell, many writers over-describe, placing large descriptive chunks at the opening of a scene. Your character doesn’t first assess the setting and then start living–and neither do you. Describe only through your POV character’s eyes, and weave short descriptions in and around the action, not separate from it. While you’re at it, go through and delete every other modifier to see if the scene reads more cleanly.

Without those modifiers, how can you describe? Strong active verbs can help replace those adjectives and adverbs and force readers to pay attention. Strong active verbs also help your scene to be specific without weighing it down with superfluous modifiers.

Connect Emotions

Your reader has deep emotions. So do you. Validate your readers’ feelings by helping them connect to both the character’s individual experience and the universal emotions we all have. Readers care less about what a character is wearing than about how he/she processes emotions. Try these tips:

  • Give characters authentic, not melodramatic feelings.
  • Don’t rely exclusively on physical symptoms (tears, clenched fists, yelling) to convey emotion.
  • Let characters’ emotions build gradually, just like in real life.
  • Unlike real life, avoid letting characters process emotions only by isolating, sitting around thinking or other passive actions.
  • As tension builds, let your characters act out emotions rather than internalizing or stuffing them.

These are only a few ways you can improve your show, don’t tell writing skills. Many thanks to the Coffee Talk group for inviting me to share some of these ideas at their weekly meeting. Keep writing, everyone!

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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