What does “show me, don’t tell me” mean?

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Monday musings on writing

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

By Scott Bury

Characters are what stories are about.

Plot is essential—we had to have a story to tell. Something has to happen, something that matters to you, the readers.

But it has to happen to someone we care about, or identify with, or connect to in some way. That connection has to happen on an emotional level.

As readers, we need to feel those emotions. This is where the “show, don’t tell” rule comes in.

It’s easy to write “She was shocked by the news.” It would be slightly better to write “The news shocked her.”

But we feel it more when we read, “Her throat felt dry and she fell back into the chair.” We know what causes that reaction. We feel it in our throats and our knees, too.

In my work in progress, I came upon a situation like this:

Javor unsheathed his dagger and stepped into the stream. Frigid shock traveled up his leg and his back as the water surged over the top of his boot. He clamped his jaw and stepped further, fighting the current that pushed him back.

The character’s reaction to the situation and the sudden wet shock to reveal something about him.

Gae-Lynn Woods does something very similar in the first chapter of The Devil of Light:

She glanced in the rearview mirror and caught the fury in the flat line of her mouth and the contraction of her brow. Again she breathed deeply, forced the tension from her body and felt exhaustion ooze in to fill the void. When she checked her reflection again, her violet eyes were still weary and her creamy skin too pale, but the imprint of anger and fear on her features was gone.

In these few sentences, we learn the character’s (Cass Elliot) mental state and see that not only is she aware of it, she knows some techniques to manage it.

Raine Thomas does even more in Return of the Ascendant:

She hadn’t gone ten feet before she spotted the dorm monitor, Rachel Ferris, stepping off the elevator with a distinct post-coital glow. She wore a self-satisfied smile, an incorrectly buttoned short-sleeved top, and a mussed hairdo. The sight of her had Kyra narrowing her eyes even as she debated whether to talk to her at all.

In this, Thomas tells us a little about Rachel Ferris, but shows us much more—and about the main character, Kyra, as well.

David C. Cassidy is all about showing, not telling. Take this sample from Velvet Rain:

Iowa beckoned, and by the third week in May, Kain crossed the state line. Des Moines he avoided—too many faces—and he worked his way west. He crossed the Little Sioux River, and by the time he arrived in the quaint town of Spencer, he was completely taken by the Hawkeye State. Iowa was like a slice of Heaven, its heart pulsing with gorgeous lakes and seas of fields. And now, climbing out of the back of the pickup he was riding in, the warm sun and the sweet breeze seduced him into thinking he might stay a while.

Don’t fall in love with it, he thought. Don’t you do that.

Toby Neal knows how to use just a few words to tell a lot. Here’s a sample from Bone Hook, her 10th Paradise Crime Mystery:

Lei couldn’t mistake the admiring glint in Thomas’ eye. She reached out and too the suit with her left hand, hoping he’d spot the wedding ring on her finger.

“I’ll yell for a bigger size if I need it.” She turned and went into the boat’s tiny head. She’d grabbed her bikini out of her truck when they’d gotten the call that the body was submerged, so she got into that first. Sure enough, with some hopping, pulling, and cramped gymnastics in the small space, Lei was able to get the rubber suit on.

Those are just a few examples. BestSelling Reads authors are masters at story-telling, at creating fully fleshed characters that readers want to know better.

That’s why our readers keep coming back: for compelling writing that puts them right in the story, where they can not only see, but hear, feel and smell the situation, and where they can feel what the characters are feeling.

So keep coming back. And tell us what you love to read.

We love to hear from you.

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About Scott Bury