I firmly believe that any beginning writer can vastly improve their work by learning three techniques:
- Show, Don’t Tell
- Add Tension
- Add Emotion
Let’s revisit Show, Don’t Tell. This is a deep, complex topic. Whole books have been written about it. There are nuances about when to use the technique, and a writer needs to develop judgment on the issue as it impacts pacing and plot and character development and just about every other aspect of crafting a good story. First, however, let’s get down to the nitty gritty on how to show.
Any statement that is a simple declaration is telling. “He was hot.” “He seemed hot.” “He felt hot.” “He wished he were not hot.” Anytime you see these words – was, seemed, felt, wished, looked – you’re probably telling.
Replace Telling Statements with Description and Action:
Instead of he was hot, show the reader something that that indicates he’s hot and let the reader make the connection. Add setting details to emphasize the heat. Take the reader on a journey where they discover the heat and feel the heat.
Example of a Telling Paragraph:
John was in the desert. He was hot. He wanted water. He wished for an oasis.
Granted this is a horrible example designed to illustrate just how bad telling can be, but I’ve read actual beginner’s writing that wasn’t much better. Note that this does nothing to engage. The reader wants to experience the story through the character. Telling robs them of the chance.
Example of Making the Paragraph Show Instead of Tell:
John trudged through the desert sand. The sun beat down on him and baked shrubs that already appeared on the verge of bursting into flame. His foot sank into the soft soil, and he took two steps for every one forward as he climbed the steep slope.
Eying a prickly cactus, he recalled watching a program where a man cut one open for water. His swollen tongue ached at the thought of a single drop of liquid, but he had no knife. Still, he eyed the sharp spines on the plant for minutes before continuing on. If there’s not an oasis on the other side of this dune, I’m done for, he thought.
In the first example, I knew nothing about John and didn’t care to find out any more. After the second, I’m tempted to continue writing just to find out what happens.
Note the use of descriptive and active verbs – trudged, beat, baked, sank, ached. Note the setting details. Note the attempt to put the reader into the character’s shoes, to make them feel his desperation.