Five Incredibly Simple Ways to Help Writers Show and Not Tell

Show me, show me.

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:

Example One:

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.  

Example Two:

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?

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. Be specific: The more specific you are with your descriptions and actions the easier it will become to show.
  4. Avoid these 'telling'words: is, are, was, were, have, had. (more telling words to avoid)
  5. Dialogue: This is one of the simplest tools to use. The moment your characters start talking, showing becomes easier.  

Happy showing. 

[Remember that there are times when you should tell and not show. Follow the link to read more: Five 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.

 by Mia Botha

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    Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate
    36 responses
    Thank you, Mia. Exactly the help that I need right now with a manuscript that needs a facelift.
    Main problem is: the "improved" version is written in present tense, which is one of the worst stylistic fads that has unfortunately infected fiction these days. I never read a novel written in present tense. There is not a single novel that was improved by changing from past tense to present tense. Most people that read present tense fiction change the "he says" to "he said" in their mind as they read.
    It is hardly a fad, Mark. Authors have been writing in present tense for decades. It is becoming more and more common because Young Adult authors are using it. Those young adults will continue to read in present tense as they get older and move on to other books.
    The first example needed about five more "that's."
    I enjoyed the piece and that's great advice. The present tense threw me off for a bit, too, but I can see it working. One slight typo exists in your point number 1, though. It should read: '...try writing a scene in first person if this IS hard for you.' Currently it is missing the word "IS" in that sentence. Great stuff otherwise!
    Thank you, Scott.
    excellent
    really helpful
    One of the signs of an amateur, relying on "he (she) saw", "he (she) felt" etc. Just WRITE what he saw, felt, smelled, etc. Unfortunately, some well-paid amateurs STILL do this. Dan Brown. JK Rowling. More. So many more.
    I'm in the middle of the second chapter, is it possible to switch to present tense once I start the third chapter
    My surefire way of showing rather than telling is the use of my favorite punctuation mark, the semi-colon. It's nearly impossible to pontificate when producing a catalogue of items separated by that most complex of all punctuation, the histrionic semi-colon.
    I enjoyed the second example more than the first. The first one seemed too narrow and with little interaction and dialogue between characters. The second one flowed much better and gave more information. The tips are very helpful but difficult to do. It must be practiced on a regular basis in my opinion. :3
    Using similes and dialogue are really good . Also, adding detail in a round about way.
    This is a great article. I like how you show a comparison between the two paragraphs. I do have trouble when writing, that I tell too much. This article provided me great information that will be helpful with my writing. Thanks!
    Interesting and useful
    21 visitors upvoted this post.