Show, don't tell: follow these 4 easy tips to improve your writing & hook readers
Updated: Feb 10
Many moons ago, a kind Harlequin editor bounced my manuscript back with a few writing tips. When she wrote about the need to show, not tell, it was as though she were speaking a foreign language.
Showing versus telling: it should have been an easy concept for me to grasp, but it took a few more years of writing stories before the penny dropped and I began to understand what it entailed.
According to a Reedsy blog, “showing illustrates, while telling merely states.” Confused? Perhaps this opening passage from my book, Passage of Time, will help.
Telling: Kate’s dog, Ali, is grieving the death of Kate’s father, Jake.
Showing: For the past two days, Ali had been stationed on the braided rug in front of Jake’s rocking chair, curled into a doggy rendition of the fetal position. She had vacated the spot only to meet the call of nature, or to periodically slurp a mouthful of water from the stainless-steel bowl resting next to a dish of untouched food.
FOUR TIPS TO IMPROVE YOUR WRITING
“Strong verbs that provide readers with a strong visual are the key to “showing and not telling in order to hook readers”, according to The Self-Publishing School website, which offers the following tips (as well as exercises) for authors wishing to improve their “show don’t tell” skills:
1. Get rid of basic sensory words: Replace weak verbs, such as “She walked into the room” with stronger verbs, such as “she charged into the room” or “she strutted into the room.”
“Strong verbs take a basic sentence and form a very specific image in the reader’s mind. Doing this throughout the entirety of your book will leave your readers feeling as if they just stepped out of an entirely different world.”
2. Don’t use “emotion-explaining” words: Instead of writing “I was so excited”…Show them “the sweat beading your forehead as you raced to your destination. Show them the lifting of your cheeks as your lips parted way for an uncontrollable smile.”
3. Use strong descriptive language to describe body language: “You can tell if another person has a crush on someone just by paying attention to the way their body adjusts when in that person’s presence” so you don’t have to tell readers the person is attracted to the other person. “Have faith your readers can put two and two together.”
4. Focus on describing senses: Use all the senses you can to depict a scene.
“The faint scent of stale cigarette smoke met her nostrils, pulling her face into a familiar grimace.” Showing rather than telling allows readers to understand that she finds where she is distasteful, without having to just say so.
For those of you who still aren’t sure of the importance of showing versus telling, Jerry Jenkins, the author of the bestselling Left Behind series writes:
“When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.”
Showing, he says, paints a picture the reader can see in his or her mind’s eye. Rather than saying a character is tall, let the reader deduce it by mentioning how others look up when they talk with him, or how he must duck to get through a door.
Jenkins provides several other examples, including this one:
Telling: When they embraced she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.
Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and he was shivering.
HOW TO TELL IF YOU'RE IN THE SHOWING MODE OR TELLING MODE
Jericho Writers, founded by writers, for writers, has these following tips on how to recognize the Telling mode from the Showing mode:
Prose written in the “showing” mode:
Prose written in the “telling” mode:
In-depth information about this subject can be found on the following websites, which were used for this article: