How To Show Not Tell Like A Pro

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Hi there, I hope you’re having a great week! Have you been doing lots of cozy fall things? I love this season. The leaves. The crisp breeze. The cozy sweaters and evenings snuggled up in a blanket. Whatever you’re doing, I hope you’re taking care of you ❤

I thought I’d cover showing vs. telling when it comes to writing.

I touched on this briefly in my post on 5 Common Mistakes New Writers Make, but I think it could use some further explanation.

You hear it everywhere: Show, don’t tell!

But what does that really mean?

Basically, it’s a way of expanding your writing and immersing your reader in the story.

Evoking emotions in your reader and giving them the tools to dive into your story.

Sounds great, right?

But it can be tricky.

I mean, you can’t show all the time.

Your book would be way too long and overflowing with flowery sentences that would lose their luster pretty quickly.

It’s like bumper stickers. A few carry meaning. But having your entire car decked out in bumper stickers will probably just make people turn away, not even bother to read one.

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It’s all about balance. You have to show enough to immerse your reader, but not so much that they get tired of reading the long, drawn-out paragraphs.

This balance will be different for every writer, and for every story. Something I have found is that it’s always better to show more.

Show as much as you can, then trim things down in the edits.

Do you need to say “Her eyelids grew heavy, her shoulders slumping as sleep beckoned her further from reality” every time, or can you just say “she was exhausted.”

Great question!

The answer is: Only you can know that.

I know, I know.

“MK, that’s not what I wanted to hear.”

But that’s the reality!

Only you can know what’s right for your story.

So show everything! Show in every paragraph, every line. Show until your fingers ache from typing, then go back and trim the fat.

Maybe you’ll go back and realize you already said that she was tired, so it’s good that you’re showing its affect now.

Maybe you’ll go back and realize this scene is already pretty fluffy, so you can just say “she was exhausted” and call it a day.

In the end, you should probably have a 70:30 ratio of showing vs telling.

Show me the little things that make me feel this world.

Tell me the big stuff.

Show me your character’s reaction when she sees a child’s doll crushed into the dirt in a war-torn countryside.

Show me how it feels when your character’s anxiety kicks in, and for the love of God, do some research if you don’t know what it feels like.

Show me how butterflies took flight in your character’s stomach when he had his first kiss.

Show me how it felt for your character to stand across from their partner on their wedding day.

Tell me the sky was blue.

Tell me the character walked across the bar and took a seat next to a cute boy.

Tell me your character is hungry.

Tell me what I need to know.

Show me what I need to feel.

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If you were describing the scene above, what would you tell me, and what would you show me?

You might tell me how deep the water was, but show me how it felt to be immersed in it. You might tell me she smiled when he kissed her, but you might show me what it felt like to kiss a mouth that tasted like saltwater and laughter. You might tell me the sun beat down on them, but you might show me how it felt to have your head grow warm while your toes buried in the frigid sand below.

You’re telling a story. That involves facts that need to be stated.

But this is art, at the end of the day.

Make me feel something.

Now if you’re wondering: “How do I show my readers?”

I’ve got you covered.

All you need to do is focus on the 5 senses: eyesight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.

Let’s give it a try with your actual story.

Think of a scene from your WIP that could use some flowers and fluff.

Got it?

Great.

Now close your eyes.

You are the character.

Their personality is yours.

Their habits and mannerisms are yours.

Their experience is your own.

Become your character in this scene.

What are you seeing?

What are you hearing?

What are you tasting?

What are you touching?

What are you smelling?

If you were this character, what would be the first thing you say, the first thing you do?

What, in this scene, would be the most important to you? The least?

What would you pay attention to? What would you ignore?

One character might be more interested in the art on the walls, while another character might be more interested in the people.

A good way to connect with your character is to imagine them at a dinner party. The waiter spills water on them. How do they react?

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Everyone will react differently in this situation. Some would jump away. Some would get angry. Some would get embarrassed. Some would apologize to the waiter. Some would shout at them.

Knowing how your character would react in a situation like this adds believability, and helps to shift your perspective to know how they would react in other situations.

Your character is a sweet little cinnamon roll. No combat training. No muscles to speak of. Afraid of their own shadow.

If someone tries to punch them, they’re probably not going to block it. They might duck, but not in a super-cool matrix-ish way. More in a scream-and-cower way. Odds are, if someone tries to punch them, they’re going to get punched! They just don’t have the reflexes required to dodge or block an attack.

How they feel about it is another story. Cinnamon roll might be scared. Or they might be embarrassed.

When I get scared, my instant reaction is to get angry. Call it a defense mechanism. Call it a problem. Whatever. It’s just how I am. If someone tries to punch me, and especially if it hurts, I’m going to cover up any fear or embarrassment I feel with anger. It will be gut instinct. My very first visible reaction.

But if I’m writing a super tough character that doesn’t have this reaction, I have to set that aside while I’m writing the scene.

It’s a lot like acting, just for anti-social weirdos such as myself.

So get into character!

Imagine how your character would feel, react, act, and write it down!

Show your reader how to feel.

If you ever feel like a scene is missing something, go back and count how many senses you used. You need to use every single sense to give your reader a fully immersive experience.

The most common one is sight. Writers are always telling me what a character is seeing, but I have a pretty active imagination. I don’t need to know what they’re seeing, I need to know what they’re hearing. Smelling. Tasting. Feeling.

You don’t have to tell me your character walked into a bakery with purple walls and a case full of breads and black and white tiled floors and a cute baker boy in the back.

If you tell me your character walked into a bakery and the smell of baking bread filled their nose, cute baker boy in the back kneading dough, I’ll fill in the rest.

Your reader is smart. And sometimes, it’s best to hint at your world and let your reader use their imagination. This adds believability, and gives the reader a better experience.

I hope this was helpful to my fellow writers out there!

If you have any more tips on Showing vs. Telling, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

As always, take care of yourself. It’s a tough world out there.

Sending love,

MK

This is my boi, assisting my mom as she tries to work. He’s telling her she needs to show more and tell less, all while making his signature derp face.