This is the ultimate phrase, isn’t it? I remember hearing it over and over in grade school; I remember seeing it scrawled in red pen throughout my college papers. Why is this so hard, and what can we do to improve upon it? This topic was actually requested by a Twitter friend. I promise to do my best to provide some help here.
How do you show instead of tell? When should you worry about this…in the first draft, in a rewrite?
Firstly, I would like to address a perspective issue, then I’ll dive right into it. Any writing advice I give comes from my experience — my years in school, my independent research, trial and error in my own manuscripts. Don’t ever take what I or anyone else says as the ultimate truth. Absorb all the advice you can from any and every source available, then find a way to make it work for you. Just as you are unique, so, too, will be your writing path.
Okay, on to the good stuff.
To inject more show into your first draft: connect with your scene. You really have to be in the midst of the action to mentally see the important details. I’ll give you an example:
In a scene from one of my short stories, a conversation is taking place between a man and a teen. The air is tense, the unspoken conversation is a touchy one. In writing the scene, I took a moment to show introspect as well as focus on some small details one might notice in that situation.
“They sipped on soda. The cold sweat of the can dampened her fingers. After small talk about the party with nervous laughs in between, she set her drink on the bar and wiped her shaking hands on her skirt.”
-“The Look” by WB Welch
Instead of saying, “They drank soda,” the sip action is more appropriate, because someone shy and nervous would likely not drink a soda down as they might in a normal situation. The can sweating also indicates the room temperature without telling the reader directly. The protagonist is going to notice her hands are wet, because she is considering physical contact, and she wouldn’t want to have wet hands. The small talk and nervous laughs is actually a perfect example of telling instead of showing, but breaking into dialog at that point would have slowed the story and felt unnecessary. (This is one of those creative calls you have to make as a writer — when and when not to use certain tools.) Then, finally, we watch her set her drink on the counter and wipe her shaking hands. She won’t approach him with damp hands, and they’re shaking because she is nervous.
Now, did I consciously make these decisions when I was writing? ABSOLUTELY NOT. It’s more intuitive in the first draft. These details came out, because I put myself in her shoes. I felt what she would have felt at that time. I imagined standing there, at that age, with a cold drink in my hand and an older neighbor standing across from me. I felt those things, then I mentally honed in on whatever details felt the most important. This is something I was able to practice during my journalism days — what details to share that are really going to bring someone into the room. I have mentioned this in a prior post, but I’ll cover it again here briefly.
One way to practice this is by doing it when you are out and about running errands. Open a note app on your phone and take notes: You walk into the grocery store. What hue are the lights? What does the air feel like? Is there a greeter? What items do you notice first? What are some of the other shoppers like? How are they dressed? Are multiple people coughing and sniffling, because it’s flu season? Are they wearing minimal clothes, because it’s hot as balls? What music is playing? What can you smell as you walk through different areas? Is the store neatly arranged? Disheveled? Write down all the details you can. When you get home, write a couple/few paragraphs to describe the scene; incorporate the most telling details, the ones that are important to set the scene. If you practice this, I promise it will start to come out more naturally in your writing.
I guess that wasn’t brief. Oh well. Anyway…on to the next portion. How do you incorporate more show into your subsequent drafts?
There’s no pinpoint answer for this. You have to catch as much as you can, then ask your editor and beta readers to help you catch more of it. As the original creator, sometimes the story is too vivid in your own head to see everything that is missing. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I intend to limit no one, but it’s hard. However, you can catch some or a lot of it.
I recommend doing a read-through of your draft solely with the intention of catching instances where you show instead of tell. The reason being, if you’re looking for too much at once, say grammatical errors while you’re wanting to improve your description, sometimes, it’s easy to slip into one mode over the other and catch more comma errors while falling into a flow and reading straight through a scene that could really use a little more description.
So one whole read focused on description.
To catch it, you have to intently focus on the words and what they are saying. Are the words telling us what someone is doing, i.e., “After small talk about the party with nervous laughs in between,” or are they showing:
“Your hair looks nice today.” Mark tipped his can at his lips, pulled in a small drink.
Blithe bit her lip. “Thanks.”
“The girls at your party, huh?” He huffed out a laugh through his nose.
Blithe chuckled with him.
This is what the scene might look like if I rewrote it to show. This is what I mean by zooming in on the words. Really focus on one sentence at a time, like the sentence about small talk. Analyze exactly what that sentence is telling the reader. Is it showing the reader what is seen or heard or felt, or is it explaining what happened?
He cut the rope, and the bucket fell to the ground fifty feet below. It crashed.
He squeezed the scissor handles. The blades sliced through the rope, letting the bucket take the fifty-foot plummet. It crashed with a high-pitched clack.
The second of these paragraphs will pull the reader much deeper than the first, because the reader can see and hear the action for themselves instead of the action being reported to them. This skill is not easy and will not be learned overnight. To catch this in your own work is difficult, but it will get easier with time. Again, I emphasize beta readers and editors here. A fresh set of eyes will catch so much.
That’s all I have for today. I hope it helps. I hope some of it struck a chord, caused a spark, or stirred the waters. Get some good words down and, if they aren’t good at first, remember, they can always be edited.