Show, don’t tell is one of the trickiest things for beginners to grasp. It’s something we teach on our Writers Write course, and it's an ‘aha moment’ that can’t be rushed.
Consider these examples:
The detective was staring at the body. He saw that it was a female and that she had been stabbed. The coroner said that she had been dead for at least five hours. The body was decomposing fast. The heat was speeding up the process. The detective’s phone rang; he looked at the screen but didn’t answer. He looked at the body hoping to find clues. Her hair was dirty and uncombed. The smell was bad. His phone rang again. He ignored the call again. The alley was dirty and smelly. They would have to move fast. The sun was already up. The detective walked over to talk to the press. They had a serial killer on their hands. This was going to be a long hot day.
Flies buzz over the corpse. The tiny black bodies frantic, jockeying for position as the coroner waves her hand.
“What have we got?” Detective Anderson steps over a puddle - a mixture of blood and drain water that doesn’t bode well for the evidence. He fishes a ringing phone out of his pocket and glances at the screen. He stuffs it back into his pocket. He nods to the coroner.
“Female, 24-28 years old, multiple stab wounds.” She moves a matted clump of dirty blonde hair out of the victim’s face. “Matches the description.”
Shit, he hates it when missing people turn up dead.
Anderson pushes his sunglasses back up his nose and they slide right back down. Fucking summer.
“Liver temp puts time of death at between 1am and 3am. Give or take a few. This weather isn’t helping. We are going to have to move fast.”
“Do you think it’s him?” he asks.
“I’ll need to run some tests at the lab, but it all fits. Same weapon, same MO, same everything.”
Anderson tugs at his shirt and checks his phone as it rings again. Sweat drips from his brow. The air is heavy, humid, and fetid.
“What are you going to tell them?” They both look at the clamouring group of journalists.
“I am going to tell them we have a serial killer on our hands.” He strides towards the vultures and sends Sarah a text to cancel dinner.
What can you do to make sure you Show and not Tell?
- Choose a viewpoint character: It is easier if you are experiencing the scene as one character. You can even try writing a scene in first person if this is hard for you. Use it as practice. You can change the viewpoint later if needed.
- Use the senses: Write a list of what your character sees, hears, feels, touches and tastes. Then write about it without using the words see, hear, feel, touch and taste.
- Be specific: The more specific you are with your descriptions and actions the easier it will become to show.
- Avoid these 'telling'words: is, are, was, were, have, had. (more telling words to avoid)
- Dialogue: This is one of the simplest tools to use. The moment your characters start talking, showing becomes easier.
[Remember that there are times when you should tell and not show. Follow the link to read more: 5 Instances When You Need To Tell (And Not Show)]
If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.