I teach a Show and Tell workshop online and everyone comes into that workshop wanting to know how to show more—they’ve usually been hit with the advice to ‘show don’t tell’. However, there’s a place for the narrative in any fiction.
What most writers really need to look at is how to tell better in the right places and show more of the character expressing emotion. It’s usually emotion that gets left off the page (and out of the scene). How do you do this?
There are some technical tricks that can help.
1 – Tell when you need to get some quick information on the page—or to shorten what you need to convey to the reader. Telling is a great way to compress time, handle a transition to a new scene, or simply put some info that on the page that you need for the reader. Nothing is worse than exposition put into a character’s mouth. That makes your dialogue stiff and often makes the character sound stupid for stating what is probably obvious.
2- Show more by eliminating ‘telling’ dialogue tags. She exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed…all of these are telling the reader an emotion. You want to show how your characters express emotion on the page—that’s where you need to show more.
3 - Use telling to alert the reader that the character is relatively unimportant. This is where a lot of writers get it wrong by telling too much about the main character, which makes that person seem unimportant. This sentence makes it clear that the cab driver is not a main character: The cab driver dropped her off at the train station. If you spend three paragraphs describing what that cab driver looks like, how he drives, and how he acts, you are showing that character is important. Keep things clear for reader—what you give pages to matters most.
4 – Show your character in action right away to get a reader’s interest and sympathy. This is key to creating likeable characters, or at least character that a reader is willing to settle down with for a few hours. If your main character is supposed to be smart, show that person doing something smart. If your main character is an ace magic user, show that character using that magic in an amazing way. A lot of writers feel like they have to show the character in a tough situation—that’s fine. But really look at what you have shown—is the situation all that tough or is the character just being stupid? You may get the reader’s scorn instead of sympathy.
5 – If you tell, you don’t need to show; if you show you don’t need to tell. This is about trusting your readers to ‘get it’. You do not need to hit the reader over the head. You don’t need to say: He was angry. And then show that character being angry. Repeating information can blunt the impact on the reader—your writing starts to feel dull and the scene sags. Sometimes repetition can be used for a certain impact, but use this technique carefully and with intent.
6 – Do remember to get the emotion onto the page—either show it or tell it but put it on the page. It’s easy when you’ve got a lot of action to get lost in getting that sorted out and forget that the reader really wants to know what the character is feeling. This is something I see a lot of in contest manuscripts. The writing is good, there’s plenty of action, but I have no emotional involvement because I have no idea if the character is frightened, amped up on adrenaline, angry, or covering up feelings. Know your characters, and get their emotions on the page!
7 – Cut the clichés in both your showing and your telling. Readers want a familiar read, but not a duplicate of something read a hundred times before—cliché actions and reactions flatten your story. Cut or change every cliché. This means no stalking into the room like a panther. No gazing into a mirror and doing an inventory of hair, eyes, and the standard description. No women (or men) who had their hearts broken once and so that person has vowed never to love again. Put a fresh spin on every cliché—whether it is narrative or a reaction to a situation. To do this, you need to know every character and your character must react in character—this means no making character take actions to make a plot work.
Work on your telling so it’s tight, brilliant writing—no one’s going to tell you to cut writing that is wonderful, even if it’s all telling. And then in scenes get more emotion on the page by showing how your characters express emotion. It’s that simple—but simple is always hard work.
Which do you struggle with most in your writing? What have you found that works well for you?
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.” She is also the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire. She is currently working on her next Regency romance, Lady Chance.
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Very helpful. Thanks for the insight.
You're welcome, Dianne.
Shannon, what I see most in critting is #5.
What I do most often is #6! Thank God for critters, who see what I forgot to put on the page!
LOVE your title and your cover!
I struggle with #6, which leads to problems with #7. Finding that 'fresh spin' and keeping it in character when writing deep POV where both dialogue and narrative are in the character's voice is a challenge. But nobody said this was easy, right?
Some characters are just easier than others and come on the page and everything's brilliant. Others have to be coaxed...or pounded on a little to get them to behave. And I can do dialogue or narrative but not both at once--so it's usually dialogue first, then a pass to put in the descriptions and actions.
Shannon, thank you! What a great post...
Shannon, this is a hugely useful post. I struggle with #3, probably because I adore British mystery novels that make every character quirky & memorable...yes, even the cab drivers!
Holly, there's a difference between quirky minor characters and overdoing that. Go ahead and do that if you love it--but make sure it's like a strong spice and be gentle with your hand (you want a skilled hand to pull that off right).
Thanks, Shannon. I'm currently doing a major rewrite of my romantic suspense to submit to agents and this is a great help!
Ah, good deal!
Numbers 4, 5, 6, & 7 resonate, but the first three are also important. Great post with easy-to-understand tips. Thank you!
I think it's emotion that's always the most critical--you can get away with a lot of things but not a lack of emotion or the reader just will not care.
Yes, this showing--telling business certainly is a booger. Please supply a link to your online class.
Jim in MT
Jim, my online classes are always listed at shannondonnelly.com--they vary month to month. Cheers!
Thanks! I got you bookmarked. Your site looks good. The "writing from the inside out" is something I think about all the time. Have you checked out the writing books from James Scott Bell? Good stuff! Cheers!
Very good suggestions.
Excellent advice, things I need to be reminded about regularly. So now I have a question: I read (or tried to read) a recently self-published book that has gotten rave reviews, even winning one of the Hoffer awards, but it is almost 100% telling. Very little dialogue, and tons of history and exposition in every chapter. Even when the author has two characters in the same scene, they often don't talk. We just get into their heads and learn what they think and there's minimal interaction between them. I don't know what to think, because it goes against everything I believe about good writing, but yet the critics and the Hoffer judges love it. I'm afraid we are looking at a sea change in writing, and it worries me. If you want to know the title and author, email me if my addresss is available to you.
Personally, I tend to stop reading a book that's mostly tell. Otherwise the narrative has to be pretty darn compelling to hold my interest. I do read a fair amount of non-fiction where the author is telling about something or other and laying their views out. I will hang in there with telling fiction if the world of the story is really interesting to me. Some classic espionage stories fall in this category.
Very helpful, thank you!
Shannon, could not get here in a timely fashion yesterday, so here I am now 🙂
I love this post. I love all your posts. Let me ask you a question about dialogue tags. It gets tired for me as a writer and as a reader to feel the need to ""describe"" to extract emotional meaning or to highlight tags ... when all I really want to do is let the characters talk for themselves. There is a school that poo-poos the ... he said ... she said ... but honestly it works to keep the words flowing while giving the reader a pause.
The question is: when is it too damn much to give each dialogue tag such importance when we can just stick to "smirk" or "smile" and get on with what's important ... what the character is saying ?? Hope you get to me later 🙂
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So glad I saved this post. Didn't realize it was you writing about Showing vs Telling, Shannon. Quite a few years ago I took your on line course, which helped me so much. I was clueless about the difference, and contest judges kept telling me I showed way too much. These tips are all good reminders. Now probably my biggest issue in #1. I have to watch having the character in dialogue tell something, I should've shown. Cliche alert! The pendulum swings. LOL Thanks so much for this. I'll share.
I'm looking forward to checking out your online courses. This post is extremely helpful. Thanks. I'll pass it on.
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