Tuesday 12 May 2020

Stages of Revision 12: Show, don’t tell

That old chestnut.  And I’d argue that the more advanced skill is knowing when it’s right to tell instead of show. However, no matter how experienced a writer you are it’s worth doing a separate check on this one. There are a few vey specific things you can look out for:



Don’t just say car – be precise. Is it a little run-around or a gas-guzzler? Is it old or new? Is it clean at the moment or could it do with a wash? What is the interior like?  Now, you don’t need to include all of those details but you at least must know them. If the picture’s clear in your head it is more likely to also be so in your reader’s


Writing with the senses

What can you, your character, narrator or protagonist hear, see, smell, feel and taste? Again you don’t need to be exhaustive but you will convince the reader that the story is really happening if you can make them actually experience the scene. Be aware that often we rely too much on the visual. Use the other senses from time to time. Also be aware that one sense brings the other. If you invite the reader to smell the bacon cooking, they’ll probably hear it sizzling as well and might even be able to taste it.  If you have a scene involving good food, make them hungry.

Real time

Is what you’re relating happening in real time? Your action should take as long as it takes you to write it or read it out loud.

A film in the head

Are you creating the same film in your reader’s heads as you started out with? You might be able to check this by showing your work to a writing buddy, your critique group or a reading group. . Let them read your work and then ask them some questions about it. Some surprising things can happens sometimes. You may not have mentioned the colour of your character’s hair in this passage but they may have got it anyway.

Image by sipa from Pixabay

Convey emotion through body language

Don’t tell us that he looked angry.  Show us his frown, the clenched fists or the flashing eyes.

Dialogue and body language

This is a better way of showing how a character reacts than merely telling us about it.

Showing versus fast pace

If you are showing instead of telling well you will inevitably slow the pace. However, you are sharpening the involvement of the reader. To increase the pace again you can use lots of action words and short, sharp sentences.  Short chapters help as well, especially if they have cliff-hangers at the end.  Anyway, if you have a really good story where the stakes are high that will create its own pace and tension.  In addition the real-time pace holds the answers back and this increase the reader’s tension in any case.    

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