To Show or To Tell, That is the Question
There is a lot of discourse out there about whether or not you should show or tell when you write. Popular opinion seems to fall to the side of a preference for showing instead of telling in order to draw the reader into the story, but it is my opinion that there are appropriate times for each.
Telling is when the words used in the moment tell us exactly what a character is feeling or what mood is supposed to be set. For example, the following sentence is "telling."
She was embarrassed.
Showing is when a description of an action or event allows the reader to decipher on their own a mood or feeling. For example, the following sentence is "showing."
His cheeks flushed a crimson shade of red and his eyes would not meet mine.
Rather than tell you that you should never use "telling" language or dialog and always using "showing" descriptions, I think it's better to consider when it's appropriate for each.
I even believe there are instances where it is perfectly appropriate to use both in one paragraph.
When to Show
Methods of showing work well when you want to convey an emotional aspect of a character in a way the reader can relate or when you want to paint a more memorable picture of a character, scene, or action. It would be very appropriate to have a lot of showing moments in the beginning of the story when you are introducing a character and setting the ground work for the world(s) in which they operate.
When to Tell
Methods of telling work well when you are in an action sequence and do not want to interrupt the pace with flowery text or when a character has to take several steps that are non-consequential and you need move the plot forward. For instance, the reader does not need to know every step taken from the moment a character woke up, did their morning constitutional, and ate breakfast. Instead, jump right to, "After breakfast..."
More telling will likely occur as you get closer and closer to the climactic moment of your story. In those moments when the action is gearing up and the pace of the story is becoming quicker, paragraphs and long sentences will pull the reader out of the action sequence where as a quick telling of what is going on will keep the activity in motion. In other words, I don't care what the debutante is wearing the moment she begins having an argument with person who brought her. Keep me engaged with the moment of stress.
When to Show AND Tell
High action sequences sometimes require both showing and telling in the same paragraph or scene. Consider a sword fight in a comedic scene. Telling might be used to set forth the thrusts, parries, and footwork to get us through the bulk of the scene, but the comedic moment when the soldier's belt is sliced apart and his pants to his great horror fall to his knees might be better served with a bit of showing.
It would also be appropriate to use both showing and telling if you have a narrator who interrupts scenes. Again, this is sometimes used as a comedic style, but I've seen it used in other dramatic novels as well. For example, a dramatic action scene is just coming to life when the narrator cuts in to give a bit of backstory or a character pauses, looks out at the audience and speaks directly to them. If you have seen The Never Ending Story or The Princess Bride, you've seen this style of show and tell occurring. It's very effective, but it won't necessarily work if you haven't already presented the narrator or the character as someone who will be interrupting in that way unless you show they are like that during your initial introduction.
Exercise: Create a Show v Tell Worksheet
Since the tendency is to tell when you should show, we will use this exercise to seek out and correct instances of telling, but be aware that you should also be cognizant of situations where you are showing but would be better served by telling.
Telling Words - List all the possible feeling words that you suspect you may have used in your manuscript. For example, some of the feelings your characters may go through might include:
happy, sad, angry, nervous, cautious, embarrassed
Next, add all the synonyms that you can think of (or check on webster.com or another site that lists synonyms).
Showing Replacement - Write ways to show the emotion instead of telling. For instance, if you used the word "happy," what are the ways you could express happy with descriptions of body language? What does happy look like on someone's face? What does a person do with their hands or their feet when they are happy?
If you need assistance with how to demonstrate different emotions, look at the cheat sheets on Writers Write(https://writerswrite.co.za/cheat-sheets-for-writing-body-language/) or Jeni Chappelle's helpful post 9 Simple and Powerful Ways to Write Body Language (http://www.jenichappelle.com/2014/09/body-language/). WritersHelpingWriters.com has also published a book called the Emotion Thesaurus worth considering if you need even more help with writing how people express emotions.
DOWNLOAD: Show v Tell Worksheet
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