Novelists are expected to show the reader – rather than tell – the story.
This is tell:
Jack was angry.
This is show:
Jack swung a punch at Harry. ‘Take that!’ he spat,
as his fist connected with Harry’s jaw.
In the ‘show’ version, there is action – the swinging of a punch – and dialogue, both of which leave the reader in no doubt that Jack is angry with Harry.
Make the reader use his/her senses
There are many ways of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ and they all require the reader to work out for themselves how a character is feeling. As in all interpersonal communications, unless someone tells you, you only get to know anything by using your senses:
As a writer, if you engage the reader’s five senses, they will see what your characters see (through exposition), hear what the characters say (through dialogue) and (if you are very clever indeed!) experience smells, taste and textures alongside your characters. Bringing a story to life relies on showing, not telling.
Action and dialogue
As a start, concentrate on the senses of sight and hearing.
Words to avoid: saw, heard
If you find yourself typing the words ‘saw’ or ‘heard’, check you are not telling.
To sum up!
Another sure fire example of ‘tell’ is when you find yourself summing up a situation, drawing conclusions, and cutting corners to save a bit of time in your story.
Watch out, especially, for examples of overtelling:
was angry. He swung a punch at Harry.
‘Take that!’ he spat, as his fist connected with Harry’s jaw.
Delete the words that ‘tell’, leaving those that ‘show’.
Your turn …
Spotting ‘tell’ is tricky; it takes practice. So, write like you normally do, but when you read your text back to yourself, ask yourself how much the reader has to do. Are you spoon-feeding, or are you engaging the reader and making him/her commit all five senses to your story?