Show Don’t Tell

Shine a spotlight on story elements

Yes, I know this is some of the most cliched writing advice, but I found there’s a simple way to distill this idea down to one phrase. Just one thing to keep in mind that helps me show an emotion, idea or theme. 

Be specific. 

That’s it really. If you feel like you’re summarising events rather than telling a story, think about how to bring descriptions to life for the reader in more detail. It’s not a report or a list. Writing is one of the most difficult and satisfying things in the world because you’re creating images and new worlds with words.

Telling: 

It was too cold, so Jeremy went home.

Showing:

Jeremy pulled his thick calico jacket tighter around his shoulders. He trudged through the snow, his apartment in view. Jeremy imagined the warmth of his heater surrounding him as a shiver flew throughout his body.

Okay, so the second one builds a character and shows him going home. We know what the cold was like now. It doesn’t feel like we’re just giving a description of what a friend did earlier today. We’ve got the components of a story here.

Being specific when creating a story builds interest, but too much detail can make them lose interest, and fast.

Stay on target. I remember when Carl Sagan decided to spend two and a half freaking pages ruminating over the contents of an airplane ticket in Contact. My eyelids started drooping a lot at that point. 

What’s the colour of Jeremy’s coat? What brand of shoes is wearing? How about the colour of socks? What exactly is the temperature that day? I could write several paragraphs about those things. But that just bore readers (and me) to tears. 

When you’re diving into a description, ask yourself if it contributes to the story or character-building in some way. 

Showing that it’s cold, get us to empathise with Jeremy’s reason for going home. We get enough detail to understand why he makes that decision. The colour of his socks doesn’t contribute anything to the story, so it’s not necessary. 

Writing often requires you to do a balancing, and showing is no different. The “Be specific” rule is great when you remember to keep it focused on the things that matter most to the narrative.  

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