They do not love that do not show their love. —William Shakespeare
The piece of writing advice I’ve heard most often is, “Show, don’t tell.” I know a lot of writers struggle with this.
Once, I watched as a writer frowned at her computer screen. “She felt frustrated,” the author read aloud, then slammed the computer closed in frustration and shook her fist at the sky shouting, “How can I show that she’s frustrated?"
Hahaha! That was me showing instead of telling!
The first trick to showing is to know what it is that you’re trying to show. And what is the easiest way to do that? Telling!
This is part of the reason that outlining is so helpful. In the outline, I write down what happens, how the characters feel about it, and what they decide to do as a result. That’s telling. For example:
After the funeral, she goes to the store. The store is out of milk. She’s disappointed but also overcome with grief. She runs out of the store, still holding the loaf of bread that she had picked up earlier.
Most people know that I’m a big believer in outlines. For me, the outline is the way in which I tell myself the story that I want to write.
This telling is the roadmap to the showing. For the showing, the task is to choose details that reveal the actions and emotions. How can I “show” that the character is overcome with grief? Well, she could cry (obviously), or her hand could tremble, or she could drop the milk, spilling it everywhere. She might scream or whisper “sorry”. She might view the store in a certain light—perhaps the rows of milk cartons look like gravestones. Perhaps the fluorescent lighting makes her skin look waxy and unreal, corpse-like.
In showing, the writer’s job is to take time and build the effect, so that the reader experiences the emotions along with the characters.
If you’re interested in thinking through your “telling” so that you can work on your “showing”, please download my outlining guide.
She tapped the final period at the end of her blog and let her fingertips rest lightly on the keyboard. With a deep breath, she scrolled to the beginning and began to read through it. She nodded, stood up, and stretched.
The blog was finished. It was time for some coffee.