In my career as a full-time fiction book editor, I’m sometimes asked the most common problems plaguing manuscripts. And I always know exactly what to tell writers.
Show versus tell.
No matter how interesting the characters or unique the concept, telling instead of showing in your prose will kill your story every single time.
Most authors know showing is better than telling. They’ve read it in craft books and heard it discussed at conferences. But few people seem to know exactly what it is and how to fix the problem.
Don’t worry. I’m here to help.
How do I identify show vs. tell problems?
One way is to look for key words and phrases that can indicate the prose is telling the reader what is happening, instead of immersing the reader in the action. When I edit a manuscript, I always look for “telling” phrases like, “The woman had very large feet, he thought,” or “so-and-so felt angry, so he waved his hands in frustration.”
It may get across gist of what’s happening, but it’s not very interesting or engaging. Telling throws the reader out of the story world and gives them a reason to stop reading. Showing, on the other hand, draws in your reader.
Another tell-tale sign of “telling” in prose is use of the passive voice or tense. For example, “He was hungry and went to get lunch” rather than “He patted his growling stomach and reached for the sandwich on his desk.”
Using -ly adverbs (hungrily, angrily, etc.) to indicate emotions can be another writer cheat to avoid the hard work of showing that character’s emotion through their thoughts and actions.
Instead of telling your reader that your character is upset, show your character fisting his hair and overturning the kitchen table.
How do I fix show vs. tell problems?
It’s easiest to demonstrate how this is done than try to explain it, so follow me to the writer workshop as we get our hands dirty. Take these examples…
He couldn’t believe that his own mother could be so selfish. He shook his head angrily. He knew he would have to tell her the truth next time he saw her. He didn’t have to take this kind of abuse. His wrath boiled over. He was pretty sure he’d never felt so angry and betrayed.
This example is perhaps a bit extreme, but it’s not that far removed from what I see frequently in my client’s manuscripts. So, how do we using “showing” prose to convey the character’s emotion naturally and draw in the reader?
How could his own mother be so selfish? He shook his head, pacing the two-toned squares of his kitchen floor tiles. He’d gone to get the butter from the fridge twice now, only to forget it in his preoccupation. I don’t have to take this abuse. He shoved an offending chair out of his way, ignoring as it teetered and crashed to the floor.
See how that works? I added actions and body language that indicate emotion (these are often called beats), personalized the character’s thoughts using a close point-of-view, and showed events happened to the character rather than telling the reader what happened.
Showing versus telling can be one of the trickiest skills to master in an author’s toolkit, and even experienced writers lapse into it at times. And yes, telling does have its place in certain types of stories. These are usually first-person novels with a strong character or narrator voice.
But eliminating telling and showing as much as possible in your fiction will tighten up and strengthen your prose. Which, in turn, will draw your reader into your story and immerse them in the magic of the world you’ve created.