You’ve probably heard the age-old adage of “show, don’t tell” at least a thousand times in your writing career so far. It’s arguably one of the most-used writing tips about. Why then, is it also the one mistake most writers make over all others?
I heard “show, don’t tell” so many times, it became a useless mantra to chant, rather than put into action. I had no idea that by ignoring it, I was actually writing flat, monotonous narrative.
So, what does it mean to show and not tell? Well—it all comes down to drama.
Show, Don’t Tell With Drama
Take this as an example:
It hadn’t stopped snowing for weeks that February. April hated the cold, but Mike sort of liked it. Sometimes, April wondered if they were suited for each other at all.
What happens in this paragraph? We are told about the setting, what the character is feeling and we’re even given a hint of a relationship about to break down—but nothing has actually happened.
Now compare this to the following:
April looked out of the window for what must have been the hundredth time that morning. The cars on the main road had turned the snow into a grey sludge. Snowflakes were still falling, but were practically emaciated compared to the fat clumps that fell the week before.
She folded her jumper tightly around herself and pressed her knees into the radiator.
“Want to check on the snowman?” Mike said from behind her, already pulling on his mittens and scarf.
She frowned. “It’s minus one out there—you’ll freeze.”
He shrugged and smiled. He still had that bit of spinach stuck in his teeth from breakfast. “Perfect snowman weather,” he said.
April turned back to the window. “Nothing about this is perfect.”
Here, we know the same things as in the previous paragraph, but we’ve been told in a memorable and engaging way. By having April show us she hates the cold and seeing the weather from her point of view, we almost feel the chill ourselves. The greying snow even becomes a handy piece of symbolism for her changing feelings towards Mike.
4 Ways to Inject Drama Into Your Writing
So how can you do this to your own writing? Here are four tips:
1. Let your scenes unfold in real time—don’t report them.
‘Real time’ can be in present or past tense—as long as it’s happening as the reader reads. The example above is a snapshot scene from two people’s lives. April and Mike are miscommunicating as we are reading about them, which creates tension.
2. Use dialogue to hint at character relationships.
Dialogue is a useful dramatic tool to reveal character dynamics, whilst avoiding sentences like “April was mad at Mike”—and it’s not just what the characters say, but how they are saying it. Although adverbs like “said quietly” should be used to a minimum, you can add a lot of meaning to dialogue by showing the reader how they are speaking.
For example, April is frowning when she says, “it’s minus one out there,” whilst Mike is smiling when he says, “perfect snowman weather.”
3. Don’t tell us how your character feels.
If April is mad—have her throw a glass. In the above example, she “folded her jumper tightly around herself and pressed her knee into the radiator.” This not only shows the reader that she is cold, but it also adds to the general sense of hostility that she feels towards Mike.
4. Don’t tell us the weather.
If it’s snowing, let us hear it crunch beneath her boots as she walks away. This kind of description can bring a setting to life, and how your characters are reacting to their setting can give us a great deal of insight into their psyche.
Drama Is Key
Adding dramatic action livens up your prose, keeping readers on the edge of their seat. It can also help us engage with a specific character, as well as giving you the chance to show off with some excellent descriptive writing! And it all comes down to showing, not telling.
For me—adding drama into my scenes has really made my characters and story “pop.”
What about you? Have you fallen into the trap of reported action in your writing? Let us know in the comments!
Take fifteen minutes to show, don’t tell. Alter the paragraph below, so that it “shows” rather than “tells.” Remember to include some of the tips in this post in your re-write!
I had gone to the shops to get milk, but had come back with a stack of newspapers instead—all with her face on them. It was too hot to be this angry.
Post your updated paragraphs in the comments section for the community to see the difference. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers. Happy writing!