Knowing When To Show #writerwednesday

“Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”

—Ernest Hemingway


The fact that Hemingway wrote in a sparse and telling style, and said the above quote all at the same damn time makes absolutely no sense. But that doesn’t make him any less right. 

Well, at least half right.

Telling has its place in fiction, but every story you write definitely needs more show than tell. The reason why is fairly simple; we don’t read fiction to have someone tell us a story. In my opinion, we read fiction to experience the story through the character and the world that an author creates. 

How and when to show.

In last week’s post, we talked about how “show, don’t tell” is all about using descriptive language and using it properly. 

As an author your main goal is to provoke feelings in your reader. One of the best ways to make that happen is to focus on small details and group them in a way that when the reader closes their eyes, a vivid picture is created in their mind.

Use your character’s senses

Your words may be black writing on a white page, but the world in which your character exists should feel three-dimensional—full of sights, sounds, smells, and textures that they should take notice of with their senses. Try to ground your character in the setting or the scene using them. 

However, you don’t want to use all of the senses at once!

Noticing all five senses will result in sensory overload for the reader. I like to pick three senses--the three that I feel will make the biggest impact—and describe those in detail. Tailor this to your character’s personality and your reader will immediately connect with them. 

Use it to foreshadow events.

Foreshadowing is one of those writing devices that is difficult to do well. Show your character’s actions and reactions to hint at a future event in a way that feels significant and memorable.

Use strong verbs.

Strong verbs often imply movement. Worlds like accelerate, deploy, explore, ignite—these words invoke action that will pull the subject from one sentence into the next. However, just like telling, this bit of advice should be used sparingly. Weak verbs have their place in literature and shouldn’t be omitted completely. But if you’re looking to create tension, or draw attention to a particular scene, use strong verbs. 

Don’t use too many adverbs.

Stephen King’s quote from his memoir “On Writing” about adverbs paving the road to hell, has somehow become an unbreakable commandment for writers. While he had a point, I think that with adverbs, the writer is telling the reader what to think when they are afraid that they aren’t expressing themselves clearly. Also, if you’re using strong verbs, adverbs are rarely necessary.

When you come across an adverb in your manuscript, look at the verb that it modifies and decide if you really need it. 

But for goddsakes, don’t delete all of them. That just makes your book stiff and boring. 

Be specific.

The more specific you are, the easier it is for you to show your reader what your character is experiencing. Show us with strong verbs how they react to plot points, and how interact with the other characters. Couple this with just the right amount of telling and you will have created a dynamic scene. 

Again…this does not mean that you should write a page and a half description of your character’s dress. 

Get your characters talking!

Dialogue always shows. It’s immediate and always conveys forward movement. Just be careful about using dialogue as an info dump. Backstory has its place, but that place isn’t in a conversation between your characters. If your character says something like “As you know…” and begins to tell the reader things that they didn’t know about your character, you’re neck deep in an info dump. Take the time to determine if this information that your reader needs to know. If it’s not, don’t include it. If it is, find another place for it in your story. 

Use your character’s emotions.

Your character’s emotions are always the best way to cue your reader in to their personality traits. Their word choice, quirks, mannerisms, vocal cues, body language—all of these can be shown by describing your characters emotions. 

And now that we’re talking about body language, we’re ready to dive into the one time that I think you must always show and don’t tell: when you’re describing your character’s emotions. We’ll start that blog series next week!

Thanks for reading and happy writing!