One of the most common phrases in the writing world is: show, don’t tell. And it is pretty sound advice. But what exactly does “show, don’t tell” mean?
Let’s start with what you want to avoid. Novice writers often default to telling the readers the emotional state of the character. They will spell out his or her feelings by saying, “He was so mad” or “He said angrily.” While this kind of telling may have its place in books for very young readers who don’t know how to pick up on emotional context, for any kind of mature reader, this style of storytelling feels patronizing. Readers are smart, and they want to be treated as smart. So instead of telling them your character is mad, give your character something to do, and reveal the character’s anger through his or her action, i.e. “He slammed the door” or “he said, clenching his fists.”
Not only can readers infer from the slammed doors and clenched fists that your character is upset, but by using specific manifestations of anger, you are building a richer world for the reader to immerse themselves in. When we read about a door slamming, we can hear the sharp sound of the wood colliding. When we read clenched fists, we can feel the tension. In addition to letting the reader feel smart by piecing things together and immersing the reader’s senses in the world more, showing instead of telling also reveals more about your character. Stating he or she was angry does little to give us insight into his or her personality, because everyone reacts to anger differently. Some get violent. Some plot revenge. Some get scary quiet. Giving your characters something to do that reveals how their emotion is manifest in them will help your readers understand your characters better.
In addition to giving your character an action, there is also another great way to show his or her emotional state instead of telling it, and and that is how you describe the environment. Whether your story is in 1st or 3rd person, the way the environment is described has the potential to reveal a lot about your character’s mood, and in turn, set the mood for your reader. (Remember: the goal is to make the reader feel what the character feels).
Let me show you an example. Our basic story: A prince is riding through a forest on his way to fulfill a prophecy and save a princess.
Ex 1: A light breeze waltzed through the leaves, the branches of trees seeming to bend and bow as he rode passed on his steed. Drops of golden sunlight trickled down through the canopy, speckling the path ahead of him like the promised kisses of his heavenly fate.
Ex 2: A cold wind brushed by his cheeks like a whispered warning urging him to turn back. The trees towered around him like sentinels, weaving together their lofty branches like bars on a prison door, allowing only a few desperate arms of sunshine reach through.
The same exact action is happening in each story–a prince is riding through a forest on his way to rescue a princess. And the same aspects of the environment are described–a breeze, the trees, dappled light. But the way in which those elements are described in the first example set the tone that the Prince is excited about his destiny, while the second example depicts him as dreading it.
So as you write, avoid using any emotion words like excited, happy, nervous, impatient, etc. Instead, describe what the character DOES to manifest those emotions, and describe the character’s surroundings THROUGH THE LENS of that emotion. If you do, you will be showing, instead of telling. And your readers will thank you for it. 🙂