Beyond Show Don't Tell

Beyond Show Don't Tell

Letting the reader experience what your characters are experiencing

by Jamie K. Schmidt 

October 9, 2018

 

Dwight Swain, a prolific 1940s pulp author, wrote: “Most folks get ‘Show, don’t tell’ wrong because they take it literally rather than figuratively. It’s not about proof (showing sad characters cry) but about causality (revealing why characters cry). Don’t just show readers the effect of emotion, reveal the cause so they can feel it too.”
    
In other words, you want the readers laughing, crying, and getting angry alongside the protagonist. Readers who are invested in the characters, their lives, and situations will keep turning the page. The ultimate goal is to make the readers fall down that rabbit hole of reading where they forget what time it is, and if they are torn away from your book, they can't wait to get back to reading it.
    
Using deep point of view will aid you in doing this, but it may also help to picture the scene as if you were a director in a play. The actor doesn't come on stage and announce to the audience, "I'm worried."  Likewise, you wouldn't have your hero necessarily say, "I'm worried."  The director would tell the actor to pace up and down with a frown on his face. As the writer, you can show us the reason why the hero is worried. Don't be afraid to use all five senses to immerse the readers into the scene. For example:
    
Louis paced the dugout. The smell of sweat and chewing tobacco filled the small area. The score was tied four to four, in the bottom of the ninth. He took a sip of Gatorade, almost choking on the super sweet flavor, but he couldn't risk tempering it with vodka anymore. Strike one. The crowd roared and jeered. The roof of the dugout trembled and shook as debris fell on it from the angry crowd. His team had never won a championship, and his job was on the line. Strike two. The plastic cup crumpled in his hand. Dust rose up from the batter who was kicking at the plate. Narrowing his eyes, Louis squinted into the sun, willing the pitcher to throw wide. Ball one. Hope warred with tension between his shoulder blades.
    
Do you want to know what happens next?
    
Could you picture the scene in your head?
    
Moreover, could you feel Louis' anxiety?

The above paragraph was a better way to portray the scene that telling the readers that Louis is baseball coach who has a drinking problem, a losing problem, and is worried about getting fired.
    
Mr. Swain, who eventually became a writing professor and published many books on the subject, also wrote:  "Your reader reads first and foremost for emotional stimulation.…Your reader reads fiction because it creates a pleasurable form of tension in him, line by line, page by page."
    
Take this example:

Bob waited for his luggage on the carousel. When he saw his bags, he pulled them off and went to find a taxi. Standing in line, he looked at his watch. It took ten minutes at the taxi stand until it was his turn. He got into the taxi and instructed the driver to go to his hotel. As they pulled up the Ritz Carlton, he swiped his credit card. When the transaction was finished, he went to the front desk to get his room key.
    
That paragraph and those like it can immediately be deleted from your novel because they don't serve any purpose. It's boring filler text that the readers will skim over. And if the readers don't find anything interesting soon, they'll shut the book and never return.
    
The example above also doesn't further the plot. It doesn't add character interaction or reveal anything about Bob. There is no setting. It could be any city, any airport. It's just a series of events that, while it may have happened in Bob's day, the reader doesn't care about. Most of your readers will have experienced or have seen what happens when you travel, and will fill in the details for you.
    
If how he got to the hotel is important to the plot, you can make the description do double duty and bring in characterization and plot points. For example:  
    
The fourteen-hour flight to New York City had been a nightmare, and he left his phone in the taxi. Bob resented that he had to stand in line like a commoner instead of getting in a limo. Combined with having to fly coach, it was almost too much for him to bear. He reached for the bottle of scotch in his luggage, only to realize he grabbed the wrong suitcase off the carousel.
    
In this paragraph, we have setting. We can see that Bob is an entitled jerk who for some reason has finance problems. And we've furthered the plot along, because he no longer has his cell phone and he has the wrong luggage.
    
Now, the readers are invested. There are questions in their mind. What happens next?  In the first example, there's none of that tension. In the second example, a lot of things could happen, and that’s the key to keeping your readers involved and reading to the very end.


USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes contemporary love stories and paranormal romances.  Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks.  Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists and the first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time.  Her dragon paranormal romance series from Entangled Publishing, has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.”

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Comments

Mamie Johnson
October 17, 2018

Thank you! I am ending mu book and will go through it again with this affect in mind.

Thomas W. Dawson
October 16, 2018

This should open a few eyes. Thanks, this is a very good article.

Jennifer Raudenbush
October 12, 2018

This is the best article I've ever read on the difference between showing and telling. Thank you!

Margaret Wilhelm
October 10, 2018

Thank you for the insights. Your examples are a great help. I am learning so much. Thanks again.

Lurene Miller
October 9, 2018

The paragraph with the guy flying second class and losing his phone helped me understand how each sentence can add tension. Thanks for a great lesson!

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