How to use SHOWING in your writing to improve the story rather than TELLING.
Fact: Great writers show and bad writers tell. It’s one of the biggest red flags a writer can signal to editors and agents, the type of flaw that can cause readers to quickly lose interest and guarantee a rejection even with the most original of plot climaxes hanging in the balance.
The good news is it doesn’t take a degree in writing to learn the basics necessary to avoid this major writing flaw. The bad news is it takes practice and a lot more creative output. Let’s look at an example:
Mike was mad.
Simple, concise, and passive. Readers who pass over this sentence will be unimpressed, uninterested, and most likely won’t tolerate many more of these types of sentences before tossing the story into the trash can. Why? Because the point of the narrator is to tell the story, and simplifying the story by telling too much detracts from the plot. So let’s fix that sentence up so it’s active and shows a lot more.
Mike’s face reddened and he felt his fingers wrap tightly around the smooth metal base of the desk lamp.
What’s different? First, “was” has been eliminated. This is no longer a passive sentence. Second, the narrator is SHOWING that Mike is mad rather than simply telling the reader. The reader can more easily visualize the scene. The reader doesn’t need to be told that Mike is mad—his red face and tight grip is implying that!
Let’s look at another example:
Jenny was afraid to tell Mike about the affair.
Again, it’s passive. Again, the narrator is simply telling the story rather than allowing the reader to really feel a part of it. Let’s fix it up:
Jenny bit her lip. She opened her mouth, wanting to tell Mike everything, but the way he was holding the lamp between his tight fingers made her tighten her lips together. Her heart beat rapidly in her chest.
Obviously, she’s afraid. The narrator doesn’t need to tell the reader.
One more example, this time working on the concept of a “back-story.” A lot of writers try to tell a character’s entire back-story with a few carefully placed paragraphs. A much more effective way is to draw out a character’s story—if necessary—through carefully timed moments and actions. Let’s take a simple back-story:
Mike had grown up in a broken home, with an alcoholic father and a mother who often hid from the rest of the family to avoid her husband’s wrath. It made Mike more violent the older he got, especially after the car accident.
That’s Mike’s back-story in one concise paragraph. Let’s try to get rid of that by breaking it down into the story in a much more fluid way:
“My father was an alcoholic.”
“I wouldn’t know what it’s like to have a mother,” Mike said. “Mine had a tendency to hide whenever anyone tried to get close to her.”
Those are examples of dialogue that can be place inside the story at useful moments. But what of Mike’s anger after the car accident? Another simple answer: SHOW Mike getting angry more often after the car accident. Put him in situations where he loses his cool!
Take a look at your own work and isolate moments where you could SHOW rather than tell.