Home > The Editor's Corner > Editor’s Corner: Show Don’t Tell: Settling in to Showing

How to Write Like You Speak with Showing Rather than Telling Part 2

A lot of first-time authors get caught up in writing stories as if they are simply giving a play-by-play of a movie—or worse, a news report. In a book, however, there is no video or music, or even the lilt or scratch of an actor’s voice, to “show” the reader what a situation looks like. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture clearly painted with words is priceless. The words you use need to trigger the reader’s imagination and set the scene so the reader can see what your characters are seeing, smell what they are smelling, feel what they are feeling.

Many people understand the concept of showing versus telling but can’t quite figure out how to go about writing text that shows. If you are one of these people, this article is for you. Here’s what I want you to do:

As you prepare to write a chapter, close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths, releasing your stress and oxygenating your brain.

We’re going to be here for a while, so settle in and make yourself comfortable. Now, imagine that you are sitting in a cozy study, in a comfortable wingback chair in front of a fireplace. With your eyes still closed, think of a nice warm fire crackling merrily away in the fireplace.

Now let’s take it a little further and get really comfortable. Imagine yourself in your most comfortable clothes. Sitting on a small table next to you is a tumbler of whatever beverage you’re likely to savor while relaxing.

Settle in to the image in your head. Really feel the heat of the fire, the cushioning of the chair embracing you. Hear the crackle of the logs. Smell the sap and the smoke. Feel the heat on your face and hands. You have to be able to hear, smell, feel, see, and even taste the elements in your scenes before you can effectively draw your readers into them, so be sure to spend a good amount of time on this process. You may require a few attempts, but that’s okay. It’s for a good cause: writing an engaging story.

Once you’ve got yourself settled in your study, see your audience before you, represented by a single person—an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Your friend doesn’t know the story you’re going to tell but is looking forward to it eagerly. Enjoy letting the suspense build in your friend. Squint off into the distance as you recall the details of the story and decide how to recount them.

When you’re ready to tell the story, begin writing. Write the words you would use to tell your friend the story. Settle in. Tell the longer tale in all its glory. Don’t just report the facts. Show the details, all of the elements that make the story compelling. Think of how the main character felt in the moment, and then convey that to the reader as clearly as possible, explaining how his or her body responded to those feelings. For example, if the character’s heart raced, did his breathing also quicken? If the character’s throat got clogged by emotion, did it affect her ability to speak or breathe?

As you tell the story, picture the horror (or glee or wonder—whatever is appropriate) on your friend’s face, and then react by sharing more details to elicit the reaction you want: a gasp, a groan, a whispered curse, a happy sigh, a cheer.

Write those details as they come to you. If you need to, use a voice recorder and actually tell your story; you can always transcribe it later.

Once you’ve got everything down, you can begin the process of revision. You’ll want to remove any details that draw attention away from what you want your reader to focus on. Strong showing text leads the reader exactly where the author wants him or her to go, with no detours.

A book that does well showing rather than telling will draw the reader in like a good campfire story does. For example, Tolkien’s The Hobbit is one of my favorite books because it causes me to feel like I’m being led down Bilbo’s path with him, rather than reading a book. Consider the book’s first few sentences:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another.

When I read these words, I’m instantly transported to the Shire, to The Hill, and can see this particular hobbit-hole as if I were one of the dwarves coming to call on Bilbo. Tolkien painted a picture with words.

When you show more than tell, you improve the bond between your reader and the character(s) whose point of view you are sharing, drawing your reader deeper into the tale. The reader becomes part of the story and becomes engaged—and a truly engaged reader never wants to put a book down.

Take a look at Part 1 of this series

Stephanie Stringham
Stephanie Stringham

As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on, and I dreamed of getting paid to read books and of helping people. With this dream, I propelled myself through college to earn bachelor’s degrees in English (minor in Writing and Publishing) and Business Administration while working as a peer tutor in the university writing lab and interning with a publishing company in college. After graduation, I stayed on with the publishing company, where I fell in love with book publishing. Editing is my avocation. I began freelancing right after college, while earning a master’s degree in Health Communication and then working as an editor for Eli Lilly and Company and for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. I have edited everything from class materials and newsletters to master’s theses, scholastic imprints, professional journals, and books in all genres. I feel my calling as an editor is not only to improve text but also to teach those with whom I work so they can constantly improve their writing. When I’m not editing books, I’m planting and growing things on a small homestead in Indiana with my husband and two children.