Show and Tell

Show and Tell refers to the way you get information to your reader. You can tell your reader, “It was just about sunset when he kissed her goodnight,” or you can show them, “Rosy fingers of fading light painted her cheeks with a soft glow as he leaned in to kiss her goodnight.” There is a time and a place for telling, but for important scenes, showing is much more engaging to your reader.

Learning to show instead of tell your scenes is vital for making your reader feel. This is important, because the more your reader can feel, the more he or she will be involved in the story and the less likely they are to put your book down. The closer your POV, the easier it is to show something.

Showing is about letting your reader experience the action along with your character. Showing is about taking your reader on an emotional journey. Showing is about making your reader feel for your character and become invested in how the story plays out.

Sometimes, there are things you simply must tell your reader. There is certain information that you have to convey. Things about your world, about your character’s past, or other things you have to let your reader in on for them to understand the story. The goal, then, is to show this information in the most interesting way possible.

Not every scene has to be an exquisite, poetic masterpiece. You don’t need to describe every sunset or the way the rain feels every time a drop lands. Sometimes it’s okay to simply say “It was raining.” But the more you can let your reader feel the splash of water on her face as your character trudges through a storm, the more you can convince your reader that he is tasting the foul slime as your character eats the bug he must consume to survive, the better.

As with backstory, you want to insert necessary information in as small of chunks as possible, only as much as your reader needs to know right now, and do it by making it as interesting as possible.

Do this by having your character interact with the world as much as possible.

For example, if your character needs to convey something about his past that he already knows but the reader doesn’t, have something trigger a memory, like a song or a picture in a store window. Or have him tell another character about the experience. Or have someone else point it out, like, “You always do this, ever since that one time.”

Or, suppose a specific religious ritual is important for your plotline, and you need to convey how the ritual is performed. Have your character go to the church or the temple or the altar and perform the ritual in a context that isn’t vital to the plot, so that when you get to the plot point and performing the ritual is a pivotal moment, the reader already knows why the character is going through certain motions and performing certain motions.

You can also use internal monologue, especially if you’re in a deep POV. Let’s say your character is a demon hunter and you need the reader to know that the only way to kill this specific type of demon is by a silver sword through the heart. You can show the demon appearing in the character’s path, and then have the character say to himself, Oh, great. A stoneheart demon. And I left my silver sword at home.

Again, you’re showing the information by letting the character interact with the world in order to bring that information to light.

How can you tell if you’re telling instead of showing?

Imagine your story is a movie. As the camera pans the scene, anything you can see in the shot you can describe, in order to set your scene. Anything the character notices from his point of view can be described, along with his reaction to it. Anything the character says or reads can be shown.

If, as you’re imagining your story in movie form, you need a narrator to explain something—if you need the narrator to talk about the architecture or the religious symbolism or the history in a scene, or so on—you’re telling instead of showing.

You want your reader to hear the narrator’s voice as seldom as possible, if at all. The more narration you have, the less engaging your story will be. If there’s a way to have another character play the part of narrator and explain things you need explained, that’s better, but ideally, you should have as much as possible come out as your character interacts with her world.

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