I’ve been obsessed with the concept of Show, don’t Tell for years. I could geek out about it all day long, and don’t get me started if I find a book that drags me into its pages with Showing details and makes me skip meals, sleep, and time with my family to find out what happens at the end…
So, when I was writing the second book in my The Fountain Series in 2017, and I got notes back from my editor on the draft I submitted, with “Show, don’t Tell, please!” in the margin, my stomach sank. I stared at the computer screen, my face hot, scrolling to see those words repeated more times than I care to admit. How could this be? I’d revised that manuscript until my eyes watered.
I thought I was doing it.
It’s Almost Impossible to See Telling in Your Own Writing Just by Reading…
If this has happened to you, don’t beat yourself up like I did. My editor’s notes on that book were the kick in the butt I needed to crack this code, and I’ve since discovered that it’s almost impossible to see Telling in your own writing just by reading. The story you’re sharing is alive in your mind, playing like a movie, with every detail available to your brain, from the pink sky your characters stand under in your scene, to the low hum of traffic in the distance. But most of that detail won’t end up in your first draft because it’s too obvious to you and you don’t want pages of description to slow your pacing.
To further complicate things, when you read what you’ve written back to yourself, you won’t notice what’s missing, because your smart writer brain will fill in all the glorious details your imagination holds about the sky and the sounds in the distance. To you, your story will read like a masterpiece. The problem is, those details your brain knows didn’t make it to the page, so your reader is going to get a much flatter version of the story you’re trying to tell.
So, how do you fix this age-old writing problem if you can’t find it in your own work? Talented editors and beta readers can flag this problem for you, but the earlier you find it, the better. I developed a checklist that will help you find places you need Showing details in your work without banging your head against the wall.
7 Ways to Find Telling in Your Own Writing
- Named Emotions – Don’t tell readers your character feels murderous, Show us their narrowed eyes and shaking body. Search for emotions named in your draft (happy, sad, frustrated, surprised, etc.) then grab your copy of The Emotion Thesaurus and drag your reader into your character’s body by adding Showing details.
- Using “-ly” Adverbs – Simply, actually, slowly… these words are almost always Telling. Hunt them down and get rid of them to make your writing stronger.
- Info Dumping – This is too much information shared at once, without anything happening in story present to move the story forward. Scan your draft visually for text-heavy pages without much white space, and these areas will stick out like a sore thumb. Eliminate any information your reader doesn’t need, find a more creative way to deliver it, or break the information up between actions that happen in your scene.
- Recapping Events that Happened Off-Screen – It’s never fun for a friend to say “you shoulda been there!” If your characters are sitting around in a scene Telling each other about blood they spilled in an epic battle, bring your reader to the battle instead, so they can hear the screams and feel the wind that blows through your character’s hair, first hand.
- Showing Many vs. One – Rather than saying your character often went fishing, Show us a specific fishing trip, where the character’s boat sprang a leak and they had to swim to shore. Instead of writing that the crowd surged forward, show us the boy who darted in front of the surging crowd, getting trampled by their feet.
- Being Vague vs. Specific – Watch for words like something, things, stuff, objects, etc. that are vague, and replace them with a specific detail that adds to your worldbuilding.
- Saying What Isn’t in the Scene – If your character sees “nothing” in the dark, or there were “no books” on the shelf, you’ve missed an opportunity to Show your reader a detail or two about what is there – the soupy fog that swallowed up the character’s view of the forest, or the bare slats of the bookshelf covered with a thick layer of dust.
Once you find these pesky places in your writing, have fun adding Showing details, so your reader can experience your cascading purple waterfalls or dark musty caverns up close. Adding these details to your book during your revision process stretches your brain in the most creative way, and might just become your favorite part of your writing process.
by SUZY VADORI
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