Updated: Jun 2
I’m going to take a break from being spiteful and let you guys in on a little secret that will distinguish your writing from everyone else’s. It’s a simple tactic that drastically improves storytelling, yet I often stumble across books that are sorely lacking in this department. Even worse is when they're popular books the Internet praises so much that you feel like you just have to read them (I’m looking at you, BookTok).
If you’ve taken creative writing classes in college, you’ve probably heard of “show, don’t tell.” Yep, that’s my secret. It’s an art that is too often neglected by writers, and it’s not difficult to learn. All you need is a few descriptive words at hand (thesaurus.com is your best friend, here). Here’s how you do it:
Find any sentence you have that does a lot of telling and not enough showing. There are many varieties of this mistake. For example, the sentence “He looked sad” tells the reader exactly what they need to know about what the character is feeling without truly showing any of the character’s emotions. Or, you may have a part in which your character is explaining exactly why they are doing a certain task without leaving any room for your reader to deduce the significance. Something like, “Bobby cracked open a book and began to read. He had always loved reading. His mother made sure he always had a book in hand ever since he was a little boy. He felt like reading was his escape, which is why he was now hiding in his bedroom with his book while the storm raged outside.”
Delete anything like this! Just trust me.
Now for some rewriting. Here’s what you could do:
Change “He looked sad” into “He ducked his head and slumped his shoulders. When he looked up, tears glistened in his eyes.”
Another thing you could do is use dialogue to express emotion, such as, “‘I’m never going to win the race,’ he said. He ducked his head and slumped his shoulders. When he looked up, tears glistened in his eyes.” This suggests the character is sad without explicitly telling the readers. It adds tension as you carry your readers through his sadness while making the scene more emotional.
When you’re talking about something more complex and thematic, such as Bobby’s love of reading, you’re going to want to bring that up in the story as early as possible. Maybe include a flashback in which Bobby’s mother is teaching him how to read, or include it in a piece of dialogue where Bobby is explaining to another character why he loves to read so much (be careful of the latter, though, because you don’t want an information dump). Since it’s an overall theme in your work, it needs to appear several times in the story for it to have significance. Avoid plopping the theme in the middle of the story out of nowhere. Then, when Bobby is using reading as his escape in the story, your readers will understand why he is huddled in his room with his book without the need for the author to explain Bobby’s reasoning. Not only does this show his love for reading rather than telling, but it also doubles as important character development.
Notice the difference? Using the art of “show, don’t tell” will strengthen your work and make it more sophisticated and poetic. Telling your readers the way things are (instead of showing them and letting them come up with their own conclusions) is less engaging, and it makes your overall writing style appear cheap and elementary. While this trick won’t necessarily improve your story as a whole, it’s an important move that will mature you as a writer. Time to make a few edits and see how quickly your writing improves!