RedPen Editing
Show versus tell

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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:

  • You use your eyes to see body language, to notice how someone is moving, to identify where they are going and what they are doing.
  • You use your ears to listen to what they say and, from this, you gauge their current mood.
  • You use you nose to identify scents, for example, the smell of toast when it’s burning.
  • You use your tongue to taste and can recognise sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavours.
  • You use touch to identify texture, for example, of a piece of material.

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.

  • Eyes can witness action. Including action brings a scene to life.
  • Ears can hear dialogue. Including conversation between your characters allows them to reveal information for the benefit of your reader.

Words to avoid: saw, heard

If you find yourself typing the words ‘saw’ or ‘heard’, check you are not telling.

  • Avoid starting a sentence with ‘Ken saw …’ – that’s telling. Instead, describe what Ken saw as if seeing it through his eyes. Have him do what he’d do – have him say what he’d say – under the circumstances of what he is seeing.
  • Avoid starting a sentence with ‘Mary heard … ‘ – instead, describe what she heard, and then go on to show what she did/said as a result of that event.

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.

  • If you are explaining a lot, on the grounds you don’t trust the reader to understand – then you’ve veered into telling!
  • If one of your characters talks at length on a single topic – then your story has turned into a lecture.

Watch out, especially, for examples of overtelling:

Jack 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?