“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov
What do we mean when we say, “show, don’t tell”? Lately I’ve had to help writers with this concept, so I thought I’d share here. I’ll attempt to give you some clear pointers, definitions, and concrete examples. Let’s start with definitions.
Scene and Summary
The building blocks of plot in a story are scenes and summaries.
Scene: A scene is any continuous moment, in the same setting and through a single point in time (lasting anywhere from seconds to minutes), in which characters act and interact. Internal emotions of the main character are clear but expressed in metaphor or with physical details. Internal emotions of the secondary character(s) are also clear but as seen through the main character. Scenes in modern fiction are much longer than summaries.
Example of scene:
Jim thrust the flowers at Carol.
“Daisies!” she said, stuffing her nose into the bunch. “How did you know?”
Jim shuffled. Now that his hands were empty, he didn’t know what to do with them. “Um, how’d I know what?”
“That they’re my favorites, silly.” Carol smiled.
“I didn’t. That is,” and he stuffed his fists into his pockets, “I mean, you look like a daisy. Or, er, they remind me of you.” Heat crept across his neck. Any minute now he’d burst into flames.
Summary: A summary is a short passage that summarizes thoughts and actions of a single character.
Example of summary:
Jim wished he could tell her how he felt. He wished he had more confidence. He wished, oh, for pity’s sake, he didn’t know really what he wished for, except to be with her. As he paid for the flowers, he gripped the bunch tight. Somehow, he knew that daisies were just the ticket.
In each scene, action is essential whether through dialogue or physical gesture. The reader feels fully present when reading a scene. In each summary, the character may think and feel and act but the moment is summarized, and the reader will often skim.
Showing, rather than telling, is active and engages the reader more deeply in your story and showing in scene is critical to writing good modern literature.
To create a plot, you will create a series of scenes, with perhaps a few summaries sprinkled in. Each scene should stand alone, and be visually separated either as its own chapter, or by an internal chapter break to cue the reader that the scene has ended and a new one is beginning.
Concrete Ways to Show
- Get rid of basic sensory words.
Words/phrases like “I saw”, “I felt”, “I heard”, etc. filter the action and tell the reader what is happening rather than show the reader. Replace these filter words with strong verbs and nouns.
Telling: “I felt scared in the dark room as I heard the wind.”
Showing: “Branches scratched the glass as the wind moaned. Shadows crept from the corners, and I shivered in the icy air.”
2. Don’t explain emotions
Using words like “happy”, “sad”, “excited” is a weak way to express your character’s inner life. Show your character’s feelings by understanding how the human mind and body react to situations. In particular, seek out physical manifestations of emotion.
Telling: “I was elated.”
Showing: “As I danced around the room I burst out in giggles. I thought I would sprout wings. He loved me!”
3. Do enlist verbs and nouns that evoke emotions
From this example “Shadows crept from the corners, and I shivered in the icy air” you can see that the verbs “crept” and “shivered” evoke the emotion of fear, as does the word “shadows” Replace all weak verbs and nouns in your sentences with strong nouns and active verbs.
4. Don’t use passive voice
Passive voice is distancing and tends to lean toward telling rather than showing. In addition to passive, try to avoid using the helping verb “was” with a past participle (any verb plus “-ing”).
Example: “The dog was chasing the ball” is passive, telling, and distant. “The dog leapt at the ball” is active and showing.
- Scenes should occupy 80% of your narrative; summaries no more than 20%. Print out 10 to 20 pages of your manuscript and use highlighters or colored markers to outline scenes in one color, summaries in another. If the balance is off, revise, and make note going forward.
- Using the “find/replace” feature in Word, search for filter words like “feels/felt”, “hears/heard”, “sees/saw”, etc. Replace them with more active verbs and/or rephrase.
- Using the same feature, search for “There is/was” and rephrase the sentence.
- Reread your manuscript out loud, looking for the clear images that your mind creates when you enter a scene. If the image is vague, you may be summarizing/telling. Revise.
- As you revise, act out scenes as if you are on stage. Literally get up out of your chair and move around in space, gesturing as if you are the character. Use those gestures in your writing.
- When you write an emotional scene, sit back and imagine yourself in that scene. What are you feeling? Is your skin prickling? Is your mouth dry? Heart pounding? Breath short? Fists clenched? There are a million ways to physically react to an emotion. Show those in your scenes.
- On each page of your manuscript, run a check to see how many specific sensory details you have mentioned. Smell is often overlooked yet is an important if subtle thing we experience every day. Check for things seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglsi
Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin
And Don’t Forget
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