“Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”
The fact that Hemingway wrote in a sparse and telling style, and said the above quote all at the same damn time makes absolutely no sense. But that doesn’t make him any less right.
Well, at least half right.
Telling has its place in fiction, but every story you write definitely needs more show than tell. We don’t read fiction to have someone tell us a story. In my opinion, we read fiction to experience the story through the character and the world that an author creates.
In last week’s post, we talked about how “show, don’t tell” is all about using descriptive language and using it properly.
As an author, your main goal is to provoke feelings in your reader. One of the best ways to make that happen is to focus on small details and group them in such a way that when the reader closes their eyes, a vivid picture is created in their mind.
How and when to show.
Use your character’s senses. Your words may be black writing on a white page, but the world in which your character exists should feel three-dimensional—full of sights, sounds, smells, and textures that they should take notice of with their senses. Try to ground your character in the setting or the scene using them.
However, you don’t want to use all of the senses at once!
Noticing all five senses will result in sensory overload for the reader. I like to pick three senses–the three that I feel will make the biggest impact—and describe those in detail. Tailor this to your character’s personality and your reader will immediately connect with them.
Use it to foreshadow events. Foreshadowing is one of those writing devices that is difficult to do well. Show your character’s actions and reactions to hint at a future event in a way that feels significant and memorable.
Use strong verbs. Strong verbs often connotate movement. Worlds like accelerate, deploy, explore, ignite—these words imply action that will pull the subject from one sentence into the next. However, just like telling, this bit of advice should be used sparingly. Weak verbs have their place in literature and shouldn’t be omitted completely. But if you’re looking to create tension, or draw attention to a particular scene, use strong verbs.
Don’t use too many adverbs. Stephen King’s quote from his memoir On Writing about adverbs paving the road to hell, has somehow become an unbreakable commandment for writers. While he had a point, I think when a writer used too many adverbs, they’re really afraid that they aren’t expressing themselves clearly. If you’re using strong verbs, adverbs are rarely necessary.
When you come across an adverb in your manuscript, look at the verb that it modifies and decide if you really need it.
But for god sakes, don’t delete all of them. That isn’t necessary and will make your writing sound flat and robotic.
Be specific. The more specific you are, the easier it is for you to show your reader what your character is experiencing. Show us with strong verbs how they react to plot points, and how they interact with the other characters. Couple this with just the right amount of telling and you will have created a dynamic scene.
Again…this does not mean that you should write a page and a half description of your character’s dress. But do give us some key details that make the scene more vivid.
Get your characters talking! Dialogue always shows. It’s immediate and always conveys forward movement. Just be careful about using dialogue as an info dump. Backstory has its place, but that place isn’t in a conversation between your characters. If your character says something like “As you know…” and begins to tell the reader things that they didn’t know about your character, you’re neck-deep in an info dump. Take the time to determine if this is information that your reader needs to know. If it’s not, don’t include it. If it is, find another place for it in your story.
Use your character’s emotions. Your character’s emotions are always the best way to cue your reader into their personality traits. Their word choice, quirks, mannerisms, vocal cues, body language—all of these can be shown by describing your characters emotions.
And now that we’re talking about body language, we’re ready to dive into the one time that I think you must always show and don’t tell: when you’re describing your character’s emotions.
The next few posts will include tips and tricks on how to describe negative and positive emotions!
Until next week…