Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

Welcome to the last post of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series.

This post is going to focus on a technique I have seen multiple times, especially in children’s and middle grade books. Sometimes, some authors will tell something first before they show it. It goes something like this:

Mary Jane was the meanest girl ever.

She burst through the school doors, hitting them open so hard that they almost ripped off their hinges. As she stormed down the hall, she shoved classmates out of her way and into the walls. She reached her locker, but two people stood in front of it.

“Out of my way, losers!” she yelled and threw her backpack at them.

So in the example, the telling is acting as a hook or an introduction to grab the reader. However, the telling doesn’t last long. There is more showing, and if you remember from my introduction, showing instead of telling is about showing MORE than telling. If we didn’t have the showing, that telling line wouldn’t have much to it. It’s the showing that keeps the reader engaged and brings the character to life.

The tell, then show technique can do more than just introduce a character. It can introduce a place:

The DownStairs is the worst place for all those unarmed.

[Begin scene]

It can introduce a scene:

Bob knew today would be the best day ever.

Boy, was he wrong.

[Begin scene]

The telling hook can introduce anything. The point is, the telling begins the story, and then you show the rest. You can vice verse it and show, then tell, using the telling as a conclusion. Just remember that the telling needs the showing. The showing keeps the reader engaged.

That is it for the “Show, Don’t Tell” series. If you have any questions about show, don’t tell, leave a comment below.

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 2- Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling

Welcome to part six of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series, and for this post, I will explain what good telling is.

Yep, that’s right. This post is all about when it is better to tell than show. To start off, I’m going to show you an example of good telling. This is from Michael Buckley’s “NERDS” series.

Alexander Brand was a secret agent. He had saved the world on more than a dozen occasions. He had stopped three invasions of the United States by foreign powers. He had helped depose six dictators and four corrupt presidents. He had a bevy of skills that served him well, including: defusing land mines, driving tanks, parachuting into hostile territories, infiltrating terrorist compounds, wearing disguises, engaging in underwater hand-to-hand combat, and breaking codes. Plus, he looked awesome in a tuxedo. At one time, Brand was the United States’ most valuable spy. But that was before the accident.
–Michael Buckley, NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society, prologue.

This example is full of telling, but it works! This is good telling. But what makes good telling good?

Let’s get started!

It Has Voice- aka It’s Not Boring!
Good telling is not boring. While showing is more engaging, good telling will keep the reader interested in the story. Good telling is full of voice.

Michael Buckley has a strong voice. That’s why his telling is interesting and engaging. If you’re in a situation where you have to tell, pack it full with voice. Give it personality!

It Keeps The Story In The Present
Sometimes, you need to tell because you can’t show. Showing requires more words than telling, and honestly, Buckley can’t show Brand saving the world. That would be a whole other book! He has to tell if he wants to get into the plot of the NERDS book.

Your book is about what is happening to the characters now, not prior. Any time you need to address something that happens prior to the events of your book, you no longer focus on the current conflict. You interrupt the story. Back stories and histories are your book’s past, and these you can tell, but be careful of info dumping.

Some writers use flashbacks and other ways to show the past. That is acceptable, though it can be tricky. I prefer to avoid flashbacks, but if you feel your story needs it, make sure it is clear that the scene is a flashback and make sure the flashback relates to the conflict.

 

It Keeps The Story Going
Your book will have some very exciting scenes, but between every exciting scene is a boring scene. What are these boring scenes? They’re usually transitioning scenes when the characters are traveling, time is passing and skipping, or places are changing.

Every scene in your book should have a conflict or pushing the story forward. Readers don’t like reading scenes that have no conflict and nothing going on. And honestly, do you want to write scenes when your characters are just walking, driving, sitting in class and doing nothing, changing into uniform, and so on?

Summarize and tell the scenes that have no conflict. Show your exciting scenes.

 

It Gets Past Insignificant Characters and Conversations
You will have characters, places, and things that have little significance in your novel. You will have characters called “the waitress”, “the neighbor”, “the kid”, “the man”, “the woman”, “the mailman”, or whatever. They will only have a few lines and play almost no role to the story. These characters need no development, so it’s better to tell these characters. Your main and supporting characters are the ones you show.

The same is true for insignificant conversation. I have said before that dialogue is a great tool to show, but if your dialogue is like this:

“Hi!”

“Hello.”

“How are you?”

“I’m good. And you?”

That’s just conversation. There’s nothing exciting about it, and it doesn’t push the plot and story forward. For conversation, just tell it.

 

It Limits Description
In my post about showing and description, I said it was sometimes acceptable to tell description. I believe description should stay short and to the point, and telling can get to the point. You can read more about this here.

 

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 2- Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue

Welcome to part five of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series. This post will focus on (well-written) dialogue.

I’ve mentioned before that dialogue is a tool to show. Our words show a lot about our characters, and dialogue can show a great number of things: personality, emotions, relationships, etc. And readers love dialogue. Nobody likes reading blocks and blocks of text.

For this post, I’m going to use examples of how dialogue can show, and I’ll be using Harry Potter quotes from the books and movies. Let’s begin!

Personality
Our personalities affect the words we say. Hot-tempered people are more likely to use negative words while happy-to-go people are more likely to use happy language. If you look at these examples, you can see how the characters’ personalities shine through their dialogue.

The Jerk- Draco Malfoy

“Are you trying to earn some extra money, Weasley? Hoping to be gamekeeper yourself when you leave Hogwarts, I suppose—that hut of Hagrid’s must seem like a palace compared to what your family’s used to.”
–Draco Malfoy, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter twelve

The Wise– Albus Dumbledore

“Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
–Albus Dumbledore, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter seventeen

The Quirky–Luna Lovegood

“I don’t think you should be an Auror, Harry,” said Luna unexpectedly. “The Aurors are part of the Rotfang Conspiracy, I thought everyone knew that. They’re working to bring down the Ministry of Magic from within using a combination of Dark Magic and gum disease.”
–Luna Lovegood, Half-Blood Prince, chapter fifteen

The Strict–Professor McGonagall

“Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts,” [McGonagall] said. “Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned.”
–Professor McGonagall, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter eight

Emotions
Our emotions can drive our words, and one way to communicate our feelings is through dialogue. In the examples below, you can see how the emotions affect the speaker’s word choice.

Anger:
“It’s no wonder no one can stand her,” [Ron] said to Harry as they pushed their way into the crowded corridor, “she’s a nightmare, honestly.”
—Ron Weasley, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter ten

Excitement:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” [Lockhart] said loudly, waving for quiet. “What an extraordinary moment this is! The perfect moment for me to make a little announcement I’ve been sitting on for some time! When young Harry here stepped into Flourish and Blotts today, he only wanted to buy my autobiography—which I shall be happy to present him now, free of charge–” The crowd applauded again. “He had no idea […] that he would shortly be getting much, much more than my book, Magical Me. He and his schoolmates will, in fact, be getting the real magical me […]”
–Gilderoy Lockhart, Chamber of Secrets, chapter four

Sadness:
“I wish people would stop talking behind my back!” said Myrtle, in a voice choked with tears. “I do have feelings, you know, even if I am dead–”
–Moaning Myrtle, Chamber of Secrets, chapter nine

Worry:
“You know what Harry and Ron are like, wandering off by themselves—they’ve ended up in the Forbidden Forest twice! But Harry mustn’t do that this year! When I think what could have happened to him that night he ran away from home! If the Knight Bus hadn’t picked him up, I’m prepared to bet he would have been dead before the Ministry found him.”
–Arthur Weasley, Prisoner of Azkaban, chapter four

Relationships
Our relationships with others also affect our dialogue. Dialogue between a mother and her child is quite different from dialogue between a boyfriend and girlfriend. Dialogue can also show the state of a relationship and how we feel about others.

Rivalry:
“Having a last meal, Potter? When are you getting the train back to the Muggles?” [said Malfoy.]
“You’re a lot braver now that you’re back on the ground and you’ve got your little friends with you,” said Harry coolly. There was of course nothing at all little about Crabbe and Goyle, but as the High Table was full of teachers, neither of them could do more than crack their knuckles and scowl.
“I’d take you on anytime on my own,” said Malfoy. “Tonight, if you want. Wizard’s duel. Wands only—no contact. What’s the matter? Never heard of a wizard’s duel before, I suppose?”
“Of course he has,” said Ron, wheeling around. “I’m his second, who’s yours?”
–Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter, and Ron Weaslye, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter nine

Family:
(On Platform Nine and Three-Quarters)
“Now, you two—this year, you behave yourselves. If I get one more owl telling me you’ve—you’ve blown up a toilet or–” [said Mrs. Weasley.]
“Blown up a toilet? We’ve never blown up a toilet.” [said one Weasley twin.]
“Great idea though, thanks, Mom.” [said other twin.]
“It’s not funny. And look after Ron.”
“Don’t worry, ickle Ronniekins is safe with us.”
“Shut up,” said Ron again.
–Molly Weasley, Fred Weasley, George Weasley, and Ron Weasley, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter six.

Friendship:
“Harry—you’re a great wizard, you know.” [said Hermione.]
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery and—oh Harry—be careful!”
Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter sixteen

Additional Examples
There’s so much more that dialogue can show. It can show such little things in ways that you may have not noticed. Here are more examples.

Age

Children:
“They stuff people’s head down the toilet the first day at Stonewall,” [Dudley] told Harry. “Want to come upstairs and practice?”
“No thanks,” Harry said. “The poor toilet’s never had anything as horrible as your head down it—it might be sick.”
–-Dudley and Harry, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter three

Mother:
“Bed empty! No note! Car gone—could have crashed—out of my mind with worry—did you care? —never, as along as I’ve lived—you wait until your father gets home, we never had trouble like this from Bill or Charlie or Percy–” –Molly Weasley, Chamber of Secrets, chapter three

The two examples are very different from each other. The first one shows a conversation that only children would have, or at least I hope adults don’t talk about sticking each other’s heads down the toilet.

There’s no surprise that the second example comes from a parent—someone who is an adult. It’s hard to imagine a child or teenager saying this, so the second example shows the character is an adult.

Characters’ ages affect dialogue, and the dialogue can shows age.

Occupation

Journalist:
“Hello, I’m Rita Skeeter! I write for the Daily Prophet. But, of course, you know that, don’t you? It’s you we don’t know. You’re the juicy news. What quirks lurk beneath those rosy cheeks? What mysteries do the muscles mask? Does courage lie behind those curls? In short, what makes a champion tick? Me, myself, and I want to know. Not to mention my ravid readers.”
–Rita Skeeter, Goblet of Fire movie

Bureaucrat:
“The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of a vital importance. Although each headmaster has brought something new to this… historical school, progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged. Let us preserve what must be preserved, prefect what can be perfected and prune practices that ought to be… prohibited!”
—Dolores Umbridge, Order of Phoenix movie

As you can see from these two examples, a journalist and a bureaucrat speak differently from each other. Rita’s words show she is a journalist, and Umbridge’s words show that she’s a bureaucrat.

 

That’s all for this post. If you wish to leave your favorite Harry Potter quotes, feel free to add them in the comments below.

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 1- Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, Description

Here is part four of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series. And this post is a long one. Sorry.

Setting is important to any story, and it’s nice to know what the characters look like. One of your job as a writer is helping the reader enter your world, and description is key.

So how does showing and telling relate to setting, appearances, and other descriptions? As I have said before, showing creates mental images for the reader. Showing will allow the reader to feel they are part of the setting or see the characters.

Example one:
“At the farm, the barn was big, and it had a picket fence. There were also pigs in the mud.”

Okay, again, this is telling, and it’s a bit boring. Let’s try again.

Example two:
“At the farm, a two-story barn cast a shadow over a whole field. Pigs rolled around in a mud bath and splattered mud on a picket fence surrounding the barn.”

The second example helps the reader create an image of the farm. Now it’s easier for the reader to slip into the story and feel he is there at the setting.

So showing description is better than telling, right? Well, wait on a second. There’s one issue we need to discuss…

 

Description Overview:
As you may have noticed, showing requires more words and sentences than telling. Telling can get to the point, but it’s not engaging.

However, description is a little different.

Most of the time, I see writers halt the conflict of the story to spend a paragraph to a page or more devoted to describe something. I favor basic description and giving the bare minimum. As much as you try, readers will fill in blank spaces, so there’s no need to go into every last detail of a place, a character’s appearance, an object, etc.

When you write description in isolated breaks, you’re breaking away from the story’s conflict and slowing the story down. Let’s say characters Cindy and Julia are in a rush to buy business suits because they have a presentation in an hour. They’re at a mall, and we get this:

As the automatic door slid open, Cindy and Julia hurried into the mall. They entered the food court first. Hundreds of tables were spread out across the glassy floor. A mixture of grease and fish drifted through the air, coming from five burger joints and two Japanese restaurants on the left. Sunlight beamed through the glass ceiling and reflected off the fountain in the middle of the court.

“We only have an hour! Where should we go first?” Cindy asked.

“Vogue Ven. They got good suits there,” Julia said.

There’s too much description here, and most of it is useless for the story. Cindy and Julia need suits. They are in a rush. But that feeling is lost in the long description that focuses on the food court. Are all the details about the food court important to the story? If we took it out, will the overall story and conflict change?

Most people have been to a food court before. We don’t need a lot of details about it. Readers only need a sentence at most about the mall, and they can fill in the rest. Honestly, all we really need is:

As the automatic door slid open, Cindy and Julia hurried into the mall. They first entered the food court. It smelled awful, but they didn’t care.

“We only have an hour!” Cindy cried. “Where should we go?”

“Vogue Ven. They got good suits there,” Julia said.

There we go. This flows better. We gave the setting, so we know where the characters are.

Lesson: Less is better.

 

So We Can Tell Descriptions?

Well, not ALL of it. For writing descriptions, I think it’s okay to tell a little. I suggest not going overboard with the showing when it comes to description.

Because I believe description should be kept minimal, you can get away with telling sometimes. That’s why it’s okay to tell. I still believe in showing, and I strongly advise incorporating description with the action and conflict. I also advise keeping your descriptions on the short side and minimal. Readers will fill in the blanks.

I usually suggest hiding the description with the conflict and using a mix of showing and telling. So you’ll get something like this:

“With her long blond hair flying with the wind, Kelly ran down the road. She pumped her long legs. She had to beat her brother to the yogurt shop. He wasn’t going to beat her again.

She blinked, and in a second, her brother was right there next to her. He had big brown puppy dog eyes, and his hair was blond like Kelly’s. He smirked at her.

Kelly shook her head, and her green eyes twinkled. She ran faster.”

There’s showing, and there’s also telling. There’s also a conflict that’s moving the story, and some of the description is integrated into the conflict. The description about their appearances was kept minimal. The readers will fill in the rest.

So yes, it is okay to tell sometimes with it comes to description because it’s best to keep it on the short side. A few sentences that tell a setting, a character’s appearance, some object, etc are fine. But still try to show. Help the reader slip into your story.

 

Original Things: Magical Powers, Exotic Places, Different Cultures, Etc:
Many writers have vivid imaginations and create extraordinary worlds. If you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction, you have a lot of world building and unique things in your novel.

In these three genres, the setting, creatures, magic, weapons, cultures, etc are original and unique. The reader has never seen or experienced these unique things before, so it is harder to fill in the blanks. The writer will have to write more description to convey everything that is original. Without that extra description, the reader will be lost and struggle to imagine your story.

Sometimes, writers have a hard time conveying what they imagine. How do you show how magic works in your world? What do your aliens look like? What is the culture like in the Stone Ages or Qing Dynasty? How do you convey this unique information to the reader?

Yep, you guess it. By showing.

Example 1:
“Elsa could make snow and ice appear out of thin air. Whenever soldiers attacked her, she just had to raise a hand, and then sharp pieces of ice would burst out of the ground. Usually, the soldiers would stumble back and flee.”

In this example, the character herself isn’t performing the action, and the writer is just telling us how her magic works. The reader isn’t there with the character and therefore not really part of the story.

Let’s try again with showing.

Example 2:
“Elsa gasped as the soldier charged at her. She raised her hand, and sharp pieces of ice burst out of the ground. Barely dodging the ice, the soldier stumbled back and fled.”

This example is more engaging. Because of the showing, we’re with the character as she performs her magic, so we’re there in the story with her. We understand how her magic works too.

Showing is especially important for culture. Culture plays a big role in any book. When we tell, you’ll get something like this:

Example A:

In the city of Tatali, men and women were never allowed to work with each other. Men had to work underground and make sure the underground generator functioned properly. Women could only work as teachers and assistants to The Elites who ran the government. Everyone could spot an Elite from ten miles away. They always wore red velvet robes, and their long hair was always braided. The every day people only wore rags, and because maintaining personal hygiene was so costly, most every day citizens smelled because they rarely bathed.

So like the ice powers example, we’re not actually in the story. The writer is telling us what the culture of this city is like. There’s no character to follow. There’s no way for the reader to enter this world.

Let’s try again.

Example B:

Luke and Megan walked out of their shack and entered the busy streets of Tatali. Passing shack after shack, they squeezed through gaps of crowds of people wearing rags. A stench filled the air and burned Luke’s and Megan’s noses, though they were used to it. Like everybody else, they too smelled from never taking a bath.

“How’s the generator?” Megan asked.

“It’s functioning. That’s all that matters,” Luke said. “How’s the school?”

“Oh, the usual,” Megan said. “I just wished we had more books for the children.”

“Maybe this is your chance to get more. Look over there,” Luke said and pointed.

Down the street was The School of Tatali. Every woman in the city pushed her way inside the building, and by the front door was a man dressed in a red velvet robe. As he tugged on his long braid, he held his chin up high and sneered at the teachers.

“An Elite,” Luke said. “Ask him to get the kids more books.”

Megan bit her lip. “Well, I don’t know…”

“Come on, Meg. The Elite control everything. If you want more books, you have to go through them.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll try.” Megan said. “See you later.”

Leaving Luke, Megan walked down toward the school. Luke ran a hand through his hair, accidentally smudging dirt over his forehead with his thumb, and turned down to the next street. He followed other men to a tunnel leading to the underground. Once inside, darkness swooped over him, and the sounds of clinking and every man in the city yelling echoed off the walls.

In this example, the showing helps the reader enter the story. The reader can now see this culture.

I know this post is longer than usual, so I’ll end here with a few take away lessons.

1. Keep description brief—readers will fill in the rest
2. Integrate your description with the conflict and story
3. Showing is better
4. But, it’s okay to tell descriptions sometimes too
5. To convey original info, please show

 

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 1- Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions

Welcome to part three of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series. Part two was about showing a character’s personality. This post will focus on characters again, but this time I will talk about how showing relates to a character’s emotions.

As I said from my previous post, one of your goals as a writer is getting readers to connect with your characters. In real life, we are emotional beings, even the most logical people. We respond and connect to each other’s emotions. Feelings can build relationships. To connect with a character, we have to feel that character’s emotions. To feel emotions, the writer shows them.

In real life, we communicate our emotions, and they’re communicated in three ways: words, tone, and body language. When I was in college, one of my professors said most of our communication come from our body language. I don’t know if that is scientifically true, but body language is one way to show a character’s emotions.

Example 1:
“She was angry.”

Okay, yes, but this line doesn’t help me connect with the character or imagine her.

Example 2:
“As her nostrils flared, she stormed out the door and slammed it shut.”

Okay, now I can see this character. The body language makes the character feel real, and it makes the writing stronger and engaging.

Besides body language, words and tone also communicate emotions. Dialogue is a great tool to show emotions, and an appropriate (although not always necessary) dialogue tag can show tone.

Example 3:
“Are you stupid? I already told you to leave me alone!” she snapped.

I didn’t have even to say that she was angry in this example. When you show emotions, the reader will know what the characters are feeling. There’s almost no need to tell them.
 

Reactions and Personality:
Emotions also show personality, and as I said last post, showing personality will help the readers connect with your characters. In real life, how we handle our emotions and reactions show what kind of people we are. The same is true for characters. The characters’ emotions and how they react to a situation can show a lot about them.

It’s common for two people to be in the same situation but react differently. All emotions have different levels and ranges. Two people could be sad, but one could be quiet and slumped over while the other could be curled up on the floor and wailing. Our emotions can be minimal, or they can be extreme.

Here is one situation but three different reactions. Let’s say Mike is doing his taxes, and they makes him angry, but how angry?

Example A: “He pressed his lips and shook his head.”
Example B: “He cussed and sneered.”
Example C: “He gave up, threw his pen and calculator over his head, and flipped the table over.”

Each example shows some degree of anger. Example A shows frustration. Example B shows anger. Example C shows wrath. Example A also shows Mikes has the will to do his taxes while example C shows Mike is a violent person. All these examples are different.

Showing body language can be hard if you’re a new writer. Here is a list of emotions expressed in body language. I broke each emotion down to mild to extreme. This barely covers all the emotions and body language out there, and if you have ideas to add for this list, please comment below and let me know. Please enjoy.

Anger:

Annoyed/Frustration:
Frowning
Lips pressed
Rolling eyes
Facepalm
Huffy sighs
Flushed face
Veins throbbing
Shaking head
Massaging temples
Running hands through hair
Furrowing brows

Mad:
Crossed arms
Glaring/narrowing eyes
Tense muscles—especially jaw and neck
Scrunching up face
Clenched jaw
Clenched fists—piercing nails into palms
Nostrils flaring
Fuming
Middle finger
Shaking fists
Sneering
Snarling
Slamming palms on table/objects
Sharp movements

Rage:
Flipping things over
Blood boiling
Kicking objects
Throwing things
Any violent behavior—choking, strangling, hitting, punching, slapping

Saddness

Upset/Restraining sadness/Ready to cry:
Quiet demeanor
Hugging oneself, rubbing arms in comfort
Droopy body
Head down
Slumping over
Lower gaze/no eye contact
Frowning
Tears swelling in eyes
A single tear running down cheek
Puffy eyes and glazed face (if already cried)
Knot in chest
Lump in throat

Sad:
Shaky voice
Curled up to knees
Burying head
Hands over face
Trembling lip
Weeping
Crying
Tears streaming

Grieving/Misery:
Trembling/body rocking
Sobbing
Wailing
Curled up on floor
Limp body
Collapsing (when trembling and crying too hard)
Little color in face

Happiness

Excited:
Grinning/smiling
Open body language—willing to hug or lean forward
Giggling/laughing
Humming
Winking
Jumping/bouncing
Skipping
Dancing
Spinning/twirling
Swinging arms
Clasping hands together

Confident:
Firm handshake
Head lift/chin up
Puffing out chest
Standing tall
Shoulders back
Arms out
Eyes forward
Strutting

Triumph:
Fist pump
Holding hands high
Chest bump/fist bump
High-fiving
Jumping
Thumps up
Embracing (teammates or friends)

Fear:

Shyness:
Blushing
Avoiding eye contact
Glancing around or lowering gaze
Folding arms or burying hands in pockets
Keeping distance

Anxious/Nervous:
Fidgeting
Biting lip
Pacing back and forth
Sweating
Leaning back/shrinking back
Swallowing/gulping
Darting eyes
Squirming
Tugging on hems or collar
Scratching oneself, especially neck

Afraid:
Wide eyes
Raised brows
Stepping back
Freezing
Heart pounding or racing
Stomach lurching
Chest constricting or tightening
Breathing rapidly
Cowering/trembling/shuddering
Drained face/pale face
Thoughts racing/can’t think straight

Scared-to-Death:
Fleeing
Fainting/collapsing
Vomiting
Shaking/quivering
Hyperventilating

Surprise:
Dropping jaw
Wide eyes
Staring
Gaping
Gawking
Hands covering mouth
Gasping
Freezing/stopping in tracks
Stepping back
Flinching or jumping back (if sudden noise or surprise)

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 1- Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction
Part 2- Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality

Let’s begin part two of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series. Today, we’re going to talk about how showing and telling relate to characterization.

Characters play an important role in your book. Most of the time, the reader is more attached to the characters than anything else in the story. As a writer, one of your goals is to develop great characters so the readers will feel a connection with them. The best books have developed, fleshed out, and complex characters that readers connect with. These characters feel so real that they jump off the pages. They have needs, wants, fears, flaws, and most importantly, a personality.

So how do you show your characters’ personalities?

By showing.

In my introduction, I said showing creates mental images for the reader. When we show a character’s personality, we see images of that character and start to feel a connection. In theater, television, and film, actors never have to tell us what their characters are like. They show what they’re like by acting out the role.

Remember in my last post I said showing was like “evidence”? It’s not enough to say, “Suzy was a smart girl.” You have to prove it. You have to show if you want your characters to come alive. Telling leads to poorly written characters who are underdeveloped, flat, and forgettable.

Let’s begin with our first example:
Example 1: “Suzy was a smart girl.”

This sentence is flat and uninteresting, and I’m not feeling a connection with this character. She doesn’t feel real to me.

Example 2: “Suzy aced all of her honors and AP courses, won first place in ten science fairs and three essay contests, and led the debate team to the state championship.”

Wow, that second example is much more engaging than the first one, and it shows more of who Suzy is. I start to feel that she could be a real person. It also showed more aspects of her personality than just her intelligence. Acing her classes shows she is a hard worker. Winning science fairs and essay contests shows she is talented. Leading her debate team shows she can be a leader.

All humans are complex. When you can show your character’s main personality and the other aspects to it, you’ll have a much more interesting character.

 

How Will This Work for a Scene?
Where new writers really struggle with showing is when they’re writing scenes. Usually, I will see a new writer write something like this:

Suzy was the smartest girl in her junior class. She arrived five minutes early to her calculus honors class and sat in the front row so she wouldn’t miss any Mr. Jones’ notes. She liked to believe that she was his favorite student. Her teacher came in. Suzy pointed out a mistake in the homework. After Mr. Jones looked at it, he told her that she was right.

The telling causes distance between Suzy and the reader. I don’t have a hint of what Suzy’s personality besides the fact that she’s smart.

Showing in a scene will look something like this:

Suzy walked into her calculus honors class and took her seat in the front row. She pulled out her books and set them on one corner of her desk before digging out her homework. Now settled, she opened her textbook to next week’s lesson.

“Good morning, Suzy,” Mr. Jones said as he entered the classroom. “Early again, I see.”

“Yep, you always say the greatest people arrive early,” Suzy said.

Her teacher chuckled. “Of course. Man, I wished my students would quote me more.”

That’s why I’m your favorite, Suzy thought.

“I also wanted to show you an error in the homework.” With a finger, she turned her homework around. “If you look at question nine, you can see why you get an indefinite answer. These numbers cancel each other out, and these numbers don’t add up correctly here. I looked up the answer in the back of the book, and I tried solving the problem backwards, but it doesn’t add up to the original equation.”

Mr. Jones stared at the problem for a minute before pulling out his pen and solving the problem himself. Suzy ripped a page out of her notebook and redid the problem too.

“See, the issue starts here,” she said.

Mr. Jones raised an eyebrow. “You’re right. Nice catch there.”

In this example, there is more personality shining through. Yes, this one was longer, but it was also better. Showing requires more effort and creative juices. Here, I used a few tools to show Suzy’s personality:

1. Action
Last post, I said action verbs will help you show. In the second example, I used action to show her personality. I had her read next week’s lesson and redo the math problem. Her taking a seat in the front row also shows she is very interested in learning. These actions show that she is smart. I never had to say that she was. As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”

2. Interaction
Another tool to show personality is having the characters interact with each other. In real life, our personalities bounce off each other. The same is true for characters. In this example, Suzy’s interacting with her teacher and pointing out the error in the homework to him shows she’s smart.

3. Thoughts and Dialogue:
In the first example, it says that Suzy liked to believe that she was her teacher’s favorite student. In the second example, I used Suzy’s thoughts to show that’s what she believed. Characters’ thoughts reveals a lot about themselves. Dialogue is also another great tool to show personality. Just like characters’ thoughts, their own words say a lot about their personality. I’ll devote a post about dialogue later.

 

If you’re a new writer, don’t let this scare you. The more you practice, the more showing will come naturally. If you’re struggling with showing, read some books to see how other authors show. You can also watch a few movies and takes notes on how the actors act and how characters come alive on the screen.

 

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 1- Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction

Oh yes, that dreaded phrase: Show, don’t tell. We’ve all heard it. Some of us love it (I love it); some of us hate it. And if you’re a new writer, showing can be difficult.

I’m going to write a full series for this subject. I believe show, don’t tell is a lengthy topic that deserves a full explanation since so many new writers struggle with it.

Before I jump into this topic, I want to make something clear– Yes, you must show in your writing. However, you will and should NOT show 100% of the time.

When people tell you to show and not tell, what they mean is that you must show MORE than tell. The majority of your novel should be showing, though it’s alright to tell sometimes. There are times when it’s better to tell than show, and I will devote a post about that later.

 

Why You Should Show:
Telling doesn’t engage the reader. It’s passive and not interesting. Telling uses general and abstract language, and it makes your book boring.

Showing creates mental images for the reader and evokes the reader’s senses and emotions. It allows the reader to slip into your story and lets your story come to life. Readers like to feel they are involved with the characters and conflict.

I also like to believe that showing is like evidence. For example, a writer can tell us the protagonist is smart, but if we never see her act smart, then the telling is contradicting her behavior. And that’s not good.

 

Now let’s look at an example:

Example 1: “It was very windy.”
Okay, that was bland. Let’s see what happens when we show instead:

Example 2: “The winds blew children away and knocked down trees.”
Can you see the winds blowing children away and knocking down trees in your mind? The second example creates mental images for us and evokes our imagination. Overall, this example is much more engaging.

 

Biggest Key To Showing:
Specificity will help you master showing. When writers tell, they use general language and not enough specifics to create mental images. From my wind example, “it is windy” is a general statement. It is so general that it doesn’t create any mental images for me. However, the second example does. It uses specific language to show specific images.

There are many other ways to show it was windy.

Examples:
“The winds shook the houses.”
“He couldn’t take a step without the winds pushing him back.”
“The winds drowned out my screams.”

All of these examples have specific details. Specifics will make your writing strong, engaging, and interesting.

Action verbs will help you show instead of tell. You may have heard people advise you to limit yourself from using linking verbs (am, is, are, was, were). Linking verbs are general, not specific words. If you look at the examples above, I didn’t use any linking verbs. They’re all action.

 

Is It EVER Okay to Tell?
Yes. Like I said earlier, there are times when it is better to tell than show, and there is such a thing called good telling. However, you still should keep it to a minimum. Your goal is to show and not just tell.

 

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 2- Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show