By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
The best stories are the ones that come alive in a reader's imagination. They pull the reader into the story world and sweep them away in the struggles and dreams of the characters. For us writers, envisioning our stories is the easy part, and the trick is getting what's in our heads onto the page. When we don't, we get a story that falls flat and dies—and who wants that?
One of the best ways to bring our tales to life is to show them, not tell them. Sadly, this is also one of the hardest things for new writers (and some experienced writers), to do. "Showing" is a moving target that varies by which point of view you use, the narrative distance, and even the genre. What works for a first-person literary journey might not work for a multiple third-person thriller.
Luckily, there are techniques that help you better show your scenes no matter what perspective or genre you write in.
Point of view (POV) is the silver bullet of writing. If you master this, 95% of the common writing problems a writer faces will vanish. A solid point of view puts you (and your readers) firmly in a character's head, seeing the world through their eyes, and experiencing that world as they would naturally experience it.
This lets you to decide which details to use when describing, what actions the character would take, and what they'd think about as they struggle to solve their goals. Seeing the story through a character's eyes means you'll write it as that character sees it, not as you see it. It helps keep you from pulling away and describing (telling) the scene from afar.
For example, a solid point of view changes a detached, flat sentence into something alive and shown:
Weak POV: Sara was so upset that John forgot their anniversary that she threw a vase at him.
Strong POV: Sara heaved the vase at John's head. "Does twelve years mean nothing to you?"
The weak POV explains the situation—it tells what Sara did (throw the vase) and why she did it (she was upset). The strong POV shows how someone in this situation would act—it shows what Sara did (she threw the vase and voiced her unhappiness) and lets readers figure out how she feels by watching her actions.
Writing the scene from inside a character's head allows readers to watch the situation and guess why the characters are acting and how they feel about it all. It makes them part of the story, not a spectator on the sidelines getting a detailed play by play of the action.
Look at your current story—what point of view are you using? Do you have one POV character per scene? Do you show the scene through their eyes? Are you describing things that the POV character wouldn't know or be able to see (common in weak or unfocused POVs)?
Try picking a POV style you're comfortable with and writing the story with that POV. For new writers, it's much easier to pick one or two characters and write from their POVs only. Trying to show the entire story from multiple characters or an omnificent narrator is difficult to do until you get the hang of it.
If you're not sure which POV style you prefer, try writing a scene from both a third person and a first person perspective. Odds are one will feel more natural for you, and for the story itself.
Narrative distance is how close readers feel to the story. A close narrative distance makes them feel inside the narrator's head (such as in first person), while a far narrative distance makes them feel as though they're standing off to the side watching (such as in omniscient third person). A closer narrative distance feels more immediate and intimate, as though the story is happening in the moment as the reader reads it. The farther the narrative distance, the more detached and impersonal the story feels.
Where you put your narrator determines how close readers feel to your story. If you're inside the head of a character seeing the world through their eyes, readers will feel a part of the narrative. If you're explaining the story from a distance, readers will be kept at a distance and not connect to the characters the same way.
Far narrative distance: It's over, Bob thought, realizing she'd never forgive him for hurting her.
Close narrative distance: He sank to the floor, numb. It's over. She'll never forgive me for this.
Narrative distance is closely linked to point of view, as you can see by these examples. The farther the narrative distance, the more detached the point of view feels. The closer the distance, the more personal the POV. The two work in tandem to dramatize (show) the story.
Does it feel like the characters are living the story, or more like someone outside the story explaining what's going on? Does it jump around from close to far depending on what's happening?
Try revising for consistency. Pick a narrative distance you're comfortable with and keep everything in the story at that distance. Some red flag words that often mean you're telling more than showing include: realized, knew, decided, because, and felt. If you see a lot of these words in areas that also feel a little distant, odds are you're telling from a far narrative distance.
If you're not sure what narrative distance you prefer, try writing a scene from both a close and a far distance and see which one reads better, and which is easier for you to write. But remember—the goal isn't to tell readers everything and explain the scene, it's to show them enough details so they can figure out the what and why by observation.
Once you have a solid understanding of point of view and narrative distance, you'll be able to show what the characters do and bring the story to life. Stories are about interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. So, show what they do, not what they plan to do.
One of the most common "tells" is to explain motive. My favorite example is simple, yet something writers write every single day:
She reached over to pick up the cup.
Here, we see the action (she reached over) but then the reason why is explained (to pick up the cup). We never actually see her pick it up, because the action isn't described—just the intent to do it. To turn this from told to shown, we'd change one word:
She reached over and picked up the cup.
Now we see the action and can guess that she reached over to pick up the cup, because we see her reach and then pick up the cup.
While this is a small tell (and writers do it all the time), it's a great example of how easy it is to explain motive and not actually show the action in the scene. Some common red flag words for explaining motive include: to [verb], when, decided, because, in order to, and tried.
Not only will showing the action make scenes feel more immediate and alive, they'll keep readers invested in what's going on, because they won't be told everything ahead of time.
For example, if your character thinks, "All I need to do is sneak past the guards and slip out that window and I'll be able to escape," and then you show him sneaking across the room, you lose all the tension. Readers already know the goal (to get to the window and escape) and they assume it'll happen, because you just told them it would. There's no suspense and no reason to keep reading.
But if you just have the character start sneaking and working his way across the room while guards patrol mere feet away and readers aren't told why...then readers will wonder what he's up to and why he's risking getting caught. They'll keep reading to find out. Tension stays high and there's something they want to know—does he escape and how.
Are they "deciding" to act? "Trying" to act? Moving to "do something" but are never shown physically doing it? Revising these simple explanations turn a flat scene with nothing happening into a scene with lots of action.
And don't forget—"action" doesn't mean the life-or-death explosion-heavy scenes from a summer blockbuster movie. Action is just characters physically doing something. If they're interacting with the external world then they're acting, and that keeps the story moving. If they're thinking and describing what they plan to do, they're internal and not doing anything at all.
Try reworking any scenes that feel too internal with the characters thinking and musing instead of acting. Look for ways to dramatize those plans
Showing and not telling is all about making it real for readers. Half the fun of reading is figuring out what's going on and why the characters are behaving as they do. The more we explain those reasons, the less reason readers have to read our stories. But when we show characters acting in intriguing ways and readers have to work to figure out why—they can't stop turning the pages.
For more on showing and not telling, check out my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting it), and learn what show, don't tell means, how to spot told prose in your writing, and why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work.
What do you struggle with in your writing? What's keeping your scenes from coming alive?
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.
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Some great examples here! Thank you so much for sharing them.
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed them.
I am guilty of having characters thinking rather than doing.
Great ideas for revisions!
It's easy to do, especially if you have a strong internal narrative voice. It sounds like they're being actives when they're really not. 🙂 Thanks!
We are ALL guilty of that, Ellen!
Narrative distance isn't something I have paid a lot of attention to when trying to Show-not-tell. But it makes so much sense.
Thanks for boosting my writing craft today. 🙂
My pleasure 🙂 Where the "camera" is makes a huge difference. It's one of the many aspects of POV that affects so much in writing.
Often the smallest of changes create the biggest differences. Great examples of how to make those changes!
Thanks! Absolutely. I'm always amazed how a single word edit can change an entire sentence, or even paragraph.
Hi Janice- Very informative, as always. I haven't really thought about narrative distance before, but will be going back through my manuscript with an eye on that. Thanks!
Thank you! Narrative distance is a big part of POV, and it really influences how the text reads.
I ordered your book years ago and it was the best purchase I've ever made in craft writing books. I literally did not understand this concept until after I was done. HOPEFULLY it's reflected in my work! Bravo!
I love this commend, Ellen. That's what this is all about, is us moving the needle forward on our own writing.
I do number three ALL THE TIME. And then I have to find and catch those tells in the edit. It would be easier to just UN-learn the bad habit! Thanks for provoking some thought here, Janice. 🙂
If only unlearning were easy 🙂 I have a few bad habits I'd like to get rid of, lol.
Excellent article. I am writing a book, and the show,don't tell method is hard to remember to do. The examples shared, are definitely about to be added to my stories. Thanks for sharing.
You're most welcome. It's tough to get into the habit of it, but once you do, it goes much easier. You start noticing the little "red flag" words and editing yourself, then you stop using them 🙂
Thanks so much for this article, Janice. It is by far the best one I've read on this subject. Very helpful and very needed. Keep them coming!
Enjoyed this. Love the "red flag words". They're an easy edit for beginning writings like me. Barbara