Showing versus telling. It’s a phrase used countless times in the writing world, yet we all fall victim to it.
In simplest terms, the goal is to allow the reader to step inside the character’s life. You know the cliche, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? I don’t want to walk in their shoes. I want to be inside the character’s mind. I want to be living their life. Feeling the emotions they have, understanding the relationships they do or don’t have, knowing the environment they wake up in every day.
Allow the reader to feel their surroundings as they would. What do they see, smell, taste, hear, and touch? What is their outlook on the world, and how does it differ from everyone around them?
But do not tell me “I see this,” “they feel this,” or “they hear this.”
So then, how do we write these senses without directly saying it?
“I see the car coming toward me.”
“The car comes toward me.”
Which is more direct?
Which do you prefer?
“I can smell the lasagna down the hall.”
“Italian seasoning drifts down the hall, reminding me of when Grandma forgot to pull the lasagna out in time.”
Particularly with the lasagna example, this allows the writer to add some backstory. Now the reader knows that Grandma could be forgetful. Will we ever get this full story? Maybe not. However, if Grandma does something later in the story, we’ll know it could be because she’s forgetful because of this line.
The idea with backstory is the writer wants to interject with backstory discreetly. There is a time and place for info dumps, but more often, these short one-liners can be more significant to the story. Not only will it help the story progress faster, but it’ll also help the reader connect more to the characters.
But what if I need to tell?
Sure, there are moments when you should tell. Those are rare. We don’t have to know every single sense in every single scene. In fact, readers don’t want that. Why? Because think about your own life. Are you consciously aware of everything happening to you in a single moment?
No, but you are aware of the things directly affecting you. Are you having an anxiety attack? These reactions will be very vivid. The character’s surroundings could be heightened and also very focused.
Is your character being proposed to? Their sole focus will be the partner in front of them. They most likely won’t hear the child screaming 50 feet away. If they hear this, that might be a memory they have later when their sensories aren’t overloaded.
Subscribe below to get the Show, Don’t Tell Writer’s Worksheet, and some more information on this topic!
The worksheet will provide you with writing prompts to help separate your mind from the story you’re working on. Sometimes we are so caught up in our own story that it’s difficult to recognize when we fall into these traps. Allow these exercises to guide you!