This last week I helped a fellow writer with her first novel by reading and critiquing it. It was obvious that she’d fallen into the same potholes everyone else had while writing a novel (or any other story for that matter) for the first time. She was telling her story without showing the reader what was happening.
And she’s not alone.
Somewhere in your writing efforts, you’ve come across the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Maybe it was a well-meaning writer in your writers’ group or an editor who’d rejected your novel/short story or even a judge from a competition you’ve entered your writing in. Most of the time they don’t explain what they mean. Perhaps because they believe that you are of sound mind and great intellect. (Which translates to not-bat-crap-crazy and able to use a search engine.)
There are a lot of long and complicated explanations – and a lot of offers to check your writing for you without ever explaining a thing – on the internet.
Here’s what I learned.
First you have to show what your characters/setting/whatever looks like.
Easier said than done.
Jade didn’t look good.
This is showing:
Jade could barely stand, let alone walk. The black cat’s fur stood every which way like she’d been in a severe windstorm. Worst though, her eyes were wild and scared.
Do you see the difference?
Yes, telling is so much easier and faster to write. And deadly boring. Showing brings your story to life.
(Sentence examples taken from my own revision process while writing The Adventures of Saphira the Faery Dog.)
Now for adding dialogue to help propel things forward.
Kate asked the Faery Cat for her help to find Ian. Her Faery Dog protectors weren’t too keen on the idea, but it didn’t bother her. She had to find him.
Jade stood up to leave. A thought occurred to Kate as she watched the lithe cat.
‘Caìt Sìth? Can I ask you something?’
‘Do you know where Ian is?’ She could have asked about Mami Wata, but everyone would be out looking for her. Ian was only important to Kate.
<No. But if you ask really nice-like I could go looking for him.>
<In return for what?> Lady asked, glaring at the cat.
<What kind of promise?> Jana asked suspicious. The other Rottweiler looked like she was about to explode.
The cat grinned. <That Caitlin will do everything in her power to restore balance and defeat the Obayifo who threaten to destroy the planet.>
Kate tilted her head. It didn’t sound too bad. In fact, it sounded exactly like the path they were on.
<Be careful. Promises made to Faeries have to be kept.>
‘I always keep my promises.’
<A promise made to a Faery that is broken, will result in death or worse.>
Kate didn’t want to know what was worse than death. But she didn’t see the harm to make a promise to do what she was planning to do anyway.
‘I promise, Caìt Sìth, to do my best to defeat the Obayifo and save the planet and bring back balance.’ She felt a weird warmth connecting her with the cat as she said the words and then it was gone.
<Good. Now I’ll go look for your boyfriend. You lot better be good.> She winked at the dogs and left.
(Scene taken from “Water Witch” – book one in my YA trilogy which takes place in the same world as Saphira’s adventures. Jade the Faery Cat happens to be in both examples used here.)
Dialogue can effectively liven a passage and move action forward. It also shows more what all your characters are feeling and thinking. Hints of events that are to come can also effectively be used in dialogue without explanation. Your character’s reaction in a situation can also show your reader who this character is. Just make sure that dialogue propels the scene – if it’s only a report of the conversation, your reader won’t feel engaged.
Use this checklist to make sure that you are showing and not telling your story:
- Is the scene happening in real time?
- Do you use dialogue?
- Do you constantly show what’s happening – setting the scene with ongoing action and descriptive language?
- Or do you report events and just tell your readers in a sentence what happened?
Showing also helps with your word count!
Your readers need to feel involved, engaged and in the moment. (I’m probably repeating myself – but it’s that important.)
I’ll suggest reading through every scene you’ve written and make sure that it isn’t yawn-worthy. I usually do this while in rewriting-mode after the first draft – at least then I know where the story is heading and what should be important.
How do you feel about show vs tell?
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