5 Ways to Turn Showing to Telling

July 27, 2016 by Erin E. M. Hatton

Have you ever read a book where you felt like you were actually living the story with the character? Have you read one where the character felt remote and lifeless? I can guarantee the reason for both is showing vs. telling.

Telling is the old style of writing—the reader is an overseer in the room, seeing the characters through the eyes of a disembodied narrator. The author tells the reader exactly what to feel and think about everything that happens.

Showing, on the other hand, lets the character view the story through the eyes of the characters themselves. That sometimes means leaving out details that the character wouldn’t know. It means trusting the reader to weigh the evidence and draw their own conclusions.

Here are a few ways to turn telling into showing:

Turn emotion labels into visceral reactions.

Telling the reader a character felt angry isn’t nearly as powerful as showing the character breathe faster, clench fists, grit teeth, or heat up. Make feelings about a gut reaction, not about assessing and naming an emotion.

Turn dialogue descriptors into body language.

A character may shout forcefully, but the reader will engage with the story on a deeper level if that character leans into another character’s face and contorts his expression instead.

Eliminate sense words.

Heard, saw, tasted, felt, smelled, or even thought, realized, or wondered all create distance from the character. Instead of describing the sensory process, describe the thing that is sensed.

Change general to specific.

Nice, small, funny, or amazing are descriptive…to a point. But they lack the subjective stamp of a character’s unique perspective. It’s always better to use an adjective or simile that brings a specific image to mind rather than a generality.

Trade “ing” verbs for “ed” verbs.

Verbs ending in “ing” are almost always accompanied by a “helping” verb. “Was”, “might”, “could”, and “shall” weaken the action. Having a character in the process of doing something isn’t as powerful as having her actually do that thing, especially if the way she does it reveals something about her state of mind.

Take a look for these examples in your manuscript before you hand it in. Doing just these five things will drastically improve the reader’s connection to the character.

About this Contributor

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Erin E.M. Hatton is the author of Otherworld and Across the Deep, winner of the 2014 Free Publishing Contest for Fiction. She has also authored several short stories and novellas. She graduated from Redeemer University College and lives in Barrie, Ontario with her husband Kevin and four children.
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Bob Jones almost 4 years ago
Erin, thank you for this post. Your tips are easy to understand and put to use. They will come in handy for a series of fictional posts I am writing.