This past week I’ve been reading some first draft manuscripts and offering critiques as part of a writing workshop. I’m noticing a lot of what’s known in the writing world as telling vs. showing. The stories are strong and the world-building thorough, but I can see from the manuscripts that many of these young writers just don’t understand what show vs. tell actually means. I didn’t understand it when I was a new writer either!
When we show our readers what’s happening in an action sequence, or give them a glimpse into the emotional life of our characters, the narrative comes alive. They’re immersed in the story instead of feeling like a distant spectator. They’re intimately connected – seeing, hearing, and feeling what’s happening moment to moment.
Let’s review some practical tips for bringing life to your prose. Writer’s note: These examples are all taken from my own work, reflecting my own growing understanding of show vs. tell over numerous edits.
Use active verbs.
Search your manuscript for the verb was. For example:
She was hiding quietly under the table.
She hid quietly under the table.
Now, search your document for adverbs. Generally, searching for –ly will do the trick. Continuing with the same example:
She hid quietly under the table.
She huddled under the table.
This small change makes for a very different reading experience.
Show the character’s emotions.
Readers want an intimate connection with characters. They want to experience what the character feels rather than read a description of it from a distance. Add physical or emotional cues to a scene to increase intensity and connect the reader with the character. From the original paragraph:
She was hiding quietly under the table, afraid. She hoped the soldiers wouldn’t notice her there.
Huddled under the table, her body shook. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath, willing the soldiers to pass.
The reader can feel the character’s fear. This is much different than simply describing the scene from afar.
Reveal setting details by having characters interact with their surroundings.
When the setting is important enough to warrant some description, either so the reader can orient themselves, or because the environment impacts the story, a good technique for show vs. tell is to have the character interact with their surroundings. For example:
To get to the ship, she had to run through thick brush and bramble bushes.
As she ran, sharp brambles carved stinging scrapes into her legs.
Use multiple senses.
Often, we describe scenes or action with visible or auditory cues. These are great, but we have other senses that can add depth to a scene. Here are some examples:
The briny scent of seawater stung her nostrils.
The ground under his feet vibrated with the sharp crack of thunder.
The icy cold bit at the bare skin of her cheeks.
We’re storytellers. Advising us to show vs. tell seems counterintuitive. But, as good storytellers, we want to invest our readers in the characters, keep them on the edge of their seat with our action scenes, bring them to tears, and make them laugh. Showing creates intimacy, immediacy, connection. Try working through your manuscript one scene at a time and see where you can bring it to life.