“Show, Don’t Tell”… What Does That Mean?

We’ve all heard the term “Show, don’t tell”. It’s in every book, magazine, show, movie, and article about writing. Every. Last. One. Unfortunately, not a lot of them are super good at explaining what that means. They just say “show, don’t tell”, and let us try to figure out the rest. Yeah, right! It’s hard enough to overcome writer’s block, but trying to obsessively-compulsively “show” and not “tell” while you’re doing it is SOOOOOOO frustrating!

Relax, my writer buddies! It’s really not all that complicated, and I’ll give examples. Never fear!

What is telling?

Simple as that. “Telling” is when you’re reading that book and all is going really well (and by “well” I mean it’s all going downhill so we can eventually get to the climax) and then, that dreaded sentence:

“(Insert character name here) was furious.”

Wait, what? How furious was s/he? How did they react?

Don’t lie to yourself, you’ve been there. We all have. Admit it. Come on, say it out loud: “I’ve been there.”

As writer’s we read that and instinctively know that something is off. We’re not sure what all the time, but we go back and do a double-take. We look for that reaction that we crave and we’re more than a little annoyed when it isn’t there. Then we go into the “what I would have done” phase of what I lovingly term “The Correction Bug”. (More on this next week. It’ll be a fun post.)

That’s when we get to the next step.

What is showing?

Showing is actually the most rewarding thing about writing. It’s when you write that perfect sentence, the one where you can see exactly what you saw in your head just by reading through it. A lovely sentence like:

“Black fingernails beat a consistent rhythm on the armrests of a gilded throne, a thin arm moving in motion with them. The porcelain skin trails up to a slender neck, which holds the imposter queen’s head atop its pedestal.”

That one’s mine, I’m really proud of it. Copyright 2014, Megan Fatheree, please do not use.

Anyway, can’t you just see the camera angle as it trails up from her feet to her face, to reveal an evil grin? I can, and I hope that’s what you saw to, or I shouldn’t be writing this post for lack of experience.

So, showing is just that. Make it DRAMATIC!!!

How do I “show” and not “tell”?

I have found that body language is prime in “showing, not telling”. Every time you go to write an emotion (e.g. “he was angry”; “she was sad”, etc.), stop yourself and ask “How would I know that if I can only see the person’s actions?”

Good question, right?

Sad is probably the easiest to show. Tears, quivering lip, frown, slumped posture. All are signs of someone whose very woebegone.

Anger is another easy one. You know how people look when they’re angry.

You can describe how anyone is feeling by their body language. Start people-watching when you’re out and about. Just wait, you’ll see what I mean.

But, “showing” doesn’t have to be relegated strictly to people and how they feel. Oh, no. It’s for settings too.

“The sunset was beautiful.”

Cop-out. Describe it, but don’t go into purple prose.

“The sun sent beams of orange and gold cascading through the sky. It reminded her of how she used to look at the world when she was young.”

Leave it at that. Don’t dish on backstory at this point. (We’ll discuss backstory proportions another time, or you can find my first backstory post here)

Describe things. Make your reader feel what the characters are feeling. One of my favorite statements is that “Sometimes, the scenes that make people cry the most are when characters are trying not to show emotion.”

(I probably didn’t quote it exact, but you get the drift.)

So, find your niche. Explore your best attempts at “show, don’t tell”. NEVER just say what they’re feeling. And stay creative!!!

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Okay, here’s the deal! This week, I want to know what YOU think about “showing, not telling”. Are you obsessive about it? Do you have no clue what you’re doing? I’m answering questions and reading every comment, so I’d love to hear from you!

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Did you like what you read today? Do you have questions, comments, or cat-killing curiosity about something? If so, please either comment on this post or visit the Contact page and drop me a note!

It was good to have you as a visitor today! Please drop by again, or become family by following the Write Knowledge. Thank You.

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BONUS POST: Forgotten Glory

Seeing as how Resurrection Sunday is fast approaching, I thought I’d share with you a short story I recently wrote on the subject. It’s titled Forgotten Glory, and is one of the works I’m very proud of. Please enjoy it, and share it with others this Easter season.

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Forgotten Glory

copyright 2015, by Megan Fatheree

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His sentence was set, and I watched them beat him again and again, stripping the very skin from the body he had chosen. He didn’t cry out, he didn’t try to run away.

They laid a cross on his back and demanded he carry it, though I knew he didn’t deserve it. He was blameless, and always will be. Yet he took it upon his shoulders and started that long walk to the destiny he had crafted with his own hands.

Along the way he faltered, and fell under the weight of his burden. A man stepped forward, chosen from the crowd, and stepped beside my Lord. With much exertion and a cry of a mortal’s pain, this man lifted the load I would have gladly carried. If only He would say something.

The Lord rose from where he had fallen and rested the weight once again on his shoulders. Even like this, his glory poured forth and touched the ones willing to receive.

The people threw words and launched their anger. I couldn’t understand how quickly they had forgotten all the things their Lord had done. How soon they had turned from his love and overflowing compassion to follow their so-called spiritual leaders.

Others joined me on the way to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull that should not belong to the one who made all of Heaven and Earth. Demons taunted, laughed, and those who had fallen long ago looked on without interest.

With each beat of the hammer that drove metal through his precious skin, a pulse propelled all of us forward. A host of heavenly warriors ready to battle. We would take him up, away from this earthly agony. If only he would say the word.

A sign above his head proclaimed his majesty, and still the people did not recognize him. They mocked him. They asked where we were, why he would not call on us to save him. And I didn’t see their beauty then. Instead of the masterpieces he had molded them to be, I saw only the Serpent, ruler of the mortal realms.

The sky turned dark as night, and thunder clapped in the distance. Lucifer himself arrived to see his great accomplishment.

The sin of all those he loved so dearly appeared to us. Each sin a blemish on his skin. One by one, we saw the sin of the past. The present. The future. A mountain of evil so vast, we could hardly bear to look at him.

“Where is your Father now?” Lucifer taunted, and a sneer distorted his beautiful face.

My Lord lifted his head and shouted through his pain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I leapt forward, ready to pull him from this cross, but the others held me back. “Why does he not say the word?” I screamed.

The humans below had not understood his agony, and they offered him the worst of their wine. Thunder cracked and lightning split the clouds, a brief reprieve from the opaque blackness surrounding him.

Then, in a moment of splendor, he gave one last shout. “It is finished!” he decreed, and we watched his spirit rip from its mortal confines.

Lucifer laughed and disappeared to his Hell, and the Demons danced with joy. The fallen ones turned and walked away. But they didn’t see what we saw.

For once in forever, all of heaven cried as we watched him release his mortal being. Rocks split open and the earth shook, crying out for the Messiah they knew. Tombs opened, the dead rose again, and those who had killed him fell to their knees. The curtain in the temple split, and we could hear it tear from miles around. His glory spilled from the Holy of Holies and flooded the entire earth. There was no more separation.

I looked on as a stranger laid the form in a borrowed grave, but I knew he wasn’t there. So I turned my eyes down and watched him descend to the very pit of Hell, where the gates swung open willingly.

Without a warrior in sight, he marched in to the place he had created for the fallen ones.

Lucifer cringed and cowered in fear, but my Lord reached out a hand. No argument could have been made. No agreement could have been reached. Even Lucifer recognized the authority of the Blameless One, whose spotless life meant He never deserved to die. An undeserved death that granted Him authority over the one who thought he had caused His demise.

The heavy keys of death and the grave jingled in His hands, and for one moment in time, all of Hell was silent. Every monster and sinner knew that Jesus had won, and they hadn’t even known there was a battle.

The gates slammed as He left them, and locked in finality. No longer would the Earth be without hope.

I watched him ascend, back to the Earth, and I knew the others saw too.

Spirit met flesh in a flash of blinding light, and the human guards couldn’t stand for the weight of His glory. We moved as one to surround the tomb, and I easily pushed the stone away from the entrance.

Not one of us stood as He stepped into the light of His own Majesty. We all knew the love that He had displayed. For a second time, graves split open and those thought dead rose from their slumber. Each one saw him and each one worshipped. No one would ever understand His great love and mercy better than those who had seen it that day.

As we watched Him ascend to greet His Father, all of heaven rejoiced in that love. For we knew He had defeated the chains of bondage and won freedom for all. We knew this wouldn’t be the last time He showed his glory to the humans He loved best. We knew we would see Him forever seated by His Father in Heaven.

And that he would come back again.