The How-to for Show, Don’t Tell

 

Would you like to write narrative nonfiction, a memoir, short story, or novel readers can’t put down? Create vivid mental movies with words that evoke visceral sensations in your readers by mastering the art of showing action rather than telling about it.

 

Try these seven tips to conjure vivid images and keep readers coming back for more.

 

 

  1. Use ACTIVE VOICE rather than passive voice; that is, to create stronger mental images, have the subject perform the action, rather than the subject acted upon by the verb.

 

Example:

The guitar was played by a homeless man. [passive]

               versus

               The homeless man played a guitar. [active]

 

  1.  Use ACTION VERBS rather than forms of “to be” (is, are, was, were, etc.) to tighten your prose and show movement. This one shift will make a huge difference in your writing.

 

Example 1:             

              The woman was hesitant to open the email.

              versus

              The woman hesitated to open the email.

 

Example 2:

                  She was angry at me.

                                                                                         versus                                                                                   

                    She slapped her hand across my mouth and yelled at me to shut up.

 

 Example 3:

 

                             Rhonda was going  to the store, but she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to get.

                   versus

                        Rhonda rolled into the parking lot and realized she forgot her grocery list.

 

     Once you’re comfortable using active verbs, add details to flesh out characters and settings:

 

               Rhonda rolled into the parking lot in her SUV, twirling a red curl around her finger, when she slapped the steering wheel. She left her grocery list on the kitchen counter—again.

 

~The first sentence with the forms of “to be”, in this case “was”, tells the reader about Rhonda at that moment.

~The second sentence shows Rhonda on her way to the store, realizing her mistake.

~The third version shows the setting as well as subtext regarding Rhonda’s frustration with her forgetfulness.The reader “sees” Rhonda inside her vehicle and learns a bit about her.

Here are two tricks to hone your showing skills using active verbs:

 

A) Write the words: is, was, were, be, being and been on an index card, and put it somewhere visible in your writing space to remember to use these forms of “to be” as little as possible. These verbs don’t show movement or details to form mental images.

B) Highlight “was” and “were” (or “is” and “are” if you’re writing in present tense) to see how often you’ve used those verbs in the same paragraph. Then revise with action verbs, and watch your writing come to life.

  1. DESCRIBE with action verbs, specific nouns, and occasional adjectives. Use adverbs sparingly.

 

Example 1:

The old man sat on the bench, hoping his bus would come soon.

versus

 The Vietnam vet slouched and wheezed on the bench, glancing down the street to check for the 29 bus to Porterville, his face a wrinkled labyrinth etched from decades of smoking.

 

Example 2:

I was running down an alley when I noticed someone going into the theater through the back door, and I wondered if that could be my escape route.   

versus

Scrambling down an alley, I saw a guy stealing into the theater through the back entrance, so I caught the door and slipped in behind him.

 

  1. Take advantage of the senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) to put the reader inside the room with your character.

Example:

My mother was dressed in the same clothes she had been wearing for a week.

versus

     Dressed in the same jeans, my mother reeked of a week’s worth of sweat and alcohol.

 

  1. Use PAST TENSE instead of past progressive to tighten your prose and pick up the pace.

 

Example:

We were riding our bikes 50 miles an hour down that hill. [past progressive]

versus

We rode our bikes 50 miles an hour down Encima Road. [past tense]

 

  1. Use ACTION TAGS instead of dialogue tags, so your reader can “see” your characters talking.

Dialogue tags—“said,” “asked,” “replied,” etc.—slow down conversations and distract readers. Establish who says the first couple of lines, and then let readers follow the conversation. To “show” characters’ movement within the setting during a conversation, use action tags to create mental pictures and provide insight into your characters.

Example:

“We’re lost,” said Brad.

“Let me see your cell phone,” said Trudy.

“It’s dead,” said Brad. “Can’t you remember anything: the 7-Eleven, the donut shop?”

“I’m supposed to memorize the town on a one-time drive-through?” retorted Trudy. “Everything looks different in the dark.”

versus

“We’re lost.” Brad stopped on the sidewalk.  

Trudy noticed a street sign and held out her hand. “Let me see your cell phone.”

“It’s dead.” Brad pulled the phone out of his jacket pocket and showed her the blank screen. “Can’t you remember anything: the 7-Eleven, the donut shop?”

“I’m supposed to memorize the town on a one-time drive through? Everything looks different in the dark.”

Note: Occasionally, you’ll need to use a dialogue tag, but don’t get fancy. Use “said,” the “invisible tag,” to clarify the speaker’s identity without distracting the reader.

  1. Balance your writing between showing and telling.

 

Be careful not to avoid “telling” altogether. Using an occasional “said” in dialogue or “was” in your narrative gives your writing a natural feel. Too much “showing” can sound forced and take the reader out of the story.

To strike a balance:

~Read your writing aloud. If your tongue trips over words or a sentence doesn’t flow, you’ll hear it and be able to adjust.

~Share your work in a writers’ group to catch awkwardness you may have missed. Providing feedback to other writers will improve your skills as well. (Note: Family and friends may read your work and love it, but they don’t know what to look for.)

~Hire a writing coach if you want to save time and energy by learning from someone who can teach you what it takes most writers years to figure out through trial and error.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, practice these seven tips and watch your work rise to a whole new level!

By Trish Wilkinson, writing coach, content and line editor www.write-to-win.com and independent publisher Sandra Jonas www.sandrajonaspublishing.com