3 Tips to Help you Show More and Tell Less in your Writing

On Friday of last week, I came home to find my manuscript had returned from its assessment by one of the professional readers of the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA). I wanted to wait a while before opening it but my children were having none of that 😉 They waited with bated breath as I tore open the envelope and read the first paragraph of my three page report, summarising the reader’s opinion of ‘From Here to Nashville.’ When I looked up with a big smile on my face, they knew the coast was clear and we all breathed normally again. I read the whole report through then and was very pleased with how positive it was. Of course, there are things I need to work on but they are manageable and mostly, the sort of things I was expecting.

So in my blog post today, I want to pick up on one of these things which is all about ‘showing, not telling’, a phrase I know you will all be familiar with, just like me. The trouble is that a lot of the time, you read about these things that you’re not supposed to do when writing but you do them anyway because you don’t know how to do things differently. I have been reading up about it over the weekend and found that the advice is not so much that we should ‘show, not tell’ as writers but that we should try and achieve a good balance between showing and telling. Sometimes, you will need to tell your readers some information in order to move things along. All writers do it, you’ll see it all the time when you’re reading. The trick is not to do it too much and to get in as much showing as you can without overdoing it. Easy, right?

The best article I read about this topic was on Emma Darwin’s blog ‘This Itch of Writing.’ You can read the article here. She refers to ‘showing’ as ‘evoking’ instead, making the reader feel as though they’re in there with the characters. Instead of ‘telling’, she refers to ‘informing’, when as the narrator, you need to cover some ground. I find this a much clearer way of looking at the whole thing.

1. I feel/I felt

So how do you know when you are ‘telling/informing’ too much? Well, if you’re writing in the first person like I am, you will find the phrases, ‘I feel’ or ‘I felt’ popping up a lot if you are ‘telling’ too much. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 2 of my novel, I’ve written:

‘My mind turned immediately to last night and I felt warm and fuzzy all over when I thought about our fantastic gig and how the crowd had given us such a positive reaction.’

2. Watch out for those adjectives

I must admit to wondering how I could show that she was feeling warm and fuzzy, instead of telling the reader that she is. The advice I was given for this example was to write something like ‘my tummy flipped over when I thought…’ Using a verb allows me to get rid of those adjectives that have crept in there too.

3. Use the senses

Next, I need to ‘show’ what warm and fuzzy looks like so that the character’s emotional experience is conjured up for the reader. One way of doing this is to use the senses to describe her feelings. You don’t need to use every sense, that would be overdoing it but maybe choose one or two and work with that. I decided that I could rewrite this sentence as:

‘My mind turned immediately to last night and my tummy flipped over at the memory of our gig. I could still hear the crowd’s applause, see their smiling faces and soon, my heart was pounding once again as the thrill of it all came back to me.’

This has made me think more carefully about the whole meaning of the phrase to ‘show, not tell’ and I think I’m better equipped now to redistribute the balance between the two in my manuscript. However, it is going to mean another complete read through with this new hat on so I may be some time 🙂 I hope you find this useful and that it helps you when looking at your current work in progress. Thanks for reading as always and have a good writing week. Do let me know in the comments below what you think of my sentence above. I’ll be happy to take on any feedback.

 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

 

© Julie Stock and My Writing Life, 2013 – 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Julie Stock and My Writing Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

17 thoughts on “3 Tips to Help you Show More and Tell Less in your Writing

    • Oh, thank you! It’s so hard to know whether you’re overdoing it so I appreciate your feedback. Now to find all those other pesky examples…..

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  1. The mere phrase “Show, don’t tell” sent the fear of God into me when I first came across it. I had never even heard of it until I put my manuscript up on Authonomy. It’s a difficult concept to grasp when you first start writing (at least it was for me), but you’ve explained it really well.

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    • Yes, I agree. It is quite a hard thing to grasp and even harder to try and do in your writing! I’m glad you found my post helpful though and hopefully, it will help you when you’re trying to do it. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment 🙂

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  2. Great post Julie with a good example from your own work. I have to admit I really ‘felt’ it in your improved version so it definitely works. 🙂

    As you say, it’s finding the balance that’s the challenge so I will read the suggested article with interest. Thanks for sharing, and well done on your report from the RNA. You’re one step closer to publication *exciting*

    Take care, Cat x

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    • Thanks, Cat. Mind you doing it throughout the whole novel is going to take quite some time! Have only managed to get through 3 chapters today but I’m beginning to feel more comfortable with it now.

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    • Hi Joy, I’m glad you found it useful. Sometimes, I find it easier to break things down a bit and work on just a few aspects. If you read that article, you’ll see it’s quite long and that can be a bit daunting to tackle all at once. Good luck with your writing.

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  3. Great example. Like you, I struggle to get the balance right. Another one of my bad habits is showing AND telling. e.g. “As she looked down at the audience her hands turned clammy and her mouth dry. Fear gripped her. ” If I had enough confidence in the first sentence I wouldn’t need the second one!

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    • Thanks, Ruth for reading and commenting. The thing that amazes me is that I know what it’s all about and yet I find it hard not to overdo telling in my writing. It may be one of the downsides of writing your first draft until it’s finished. Maybe if I edited along the way…but that’s a whole new blog post just there! Writing is a lot to do with self-confidence definitely. Good luck with your writing week.

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  4. Great blog Julie. Like you, I find getting the balance between showing and telling quite tricky. It’s definitely something I’ll have to be more aware of more now I’ve got my editing hat on. Loved your example.

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    • Thank you, Janice, for reading and commenting. I’ve revised 6 chapters now and I start by searching for ‘feel’ and ‘felt’ which usually brings up some ‘good’ examples for me to play around with. Then there are the adjectives…I’m cutting out quite a few of those altogether, even though it hurts 😦 As you say, it’s quite tricky and you do have to actively look for it. Anyway, good luck with your editing 🙂

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  5. I think you have explained the concept very well. Also that sentence you gave as an example has been improved no end. I wish you luck with the rest of the novel. I’m sure we’ll see it in print before too long 🙂

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    • Thank you, Mandy. I appreciate the positive feedback on the sentence and the blog post. This has been a really popular subject which shows (ha!) how many people struggle with this topic. Thanks for your good wishes with the novel – I hope it will be in print before too long as well! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment 🙂

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    • I’m glad you found it useful. Not sure if it’s a beginner’s mistake or not. We’re all trying our best to improve our writing and that’s what’s important.Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment 🙂

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