“Show, don’t tell” is a literary expression used by writers. It means add description to your story, characters, and setting. Your readers want to be able to crawl into the pages of your book and stand next to your characters, to experience their thoughts and feelings.
Anton Chekov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.“
If you struggle with Show don’t tell, you need to get your hands on a book called The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
Many aspired or new authors have a hard time with that method. This book describes feelings in details, from the physical signals and internal sensation, to the mental responses, and cues of acute or long-term effects. One important thing to remember is that you know your story, and your characters’ feelings. Your readers don’t. That’s why you have to show them.
I asked someone to proofread one of my first drafts. In one scene, a cop comes to the door, holding a child’s hat in an evidence bag. He asks the mother whose child had disappeared if it was her daughter’s. Her mouth fell open, and her knees buckled. She had to brace herself against the wall for support, asking him “Where did you find it?” I saw everything through my mind’s eyes, but didn’t write it like that. My proofreader didn’t see the character’s reaction, and didn’t feel the agony. The way I wrote it made it sound like my character didn’t care. Why? I didn’t know how to show her emotions.
Some add four or five senses to give more description. I love this great example I found on a blog that talked about Show, don’t tell. I don’t recall what site, nor can I find it, so I can’t give credit to them. Know those are not my words except the ones in red.
Tom crawled through the tunnel on his hands and knees. He winced [feel] as a sharp edge sliced through his fingers. He had to keep his head low to keep from scraping against the low ceiling. The slippery sharp rocks were beautiful [sight] but deadly. One false move and he could be cut to ribbons. He took a deep breath, the pungent smell of flowers [smell] letting him know he neared his destination. A dim light shone in the distance, so he knew he was almost to the end. The light shined on the rocks, making them resemble precious jewels.
I believe there was a line in another version that said something about the taste of blood when he instinctively brought his finger to his mouth. I bought The Emotion Thesaurus as soon as it came out, and couldn’t devour it fast enough. I learned to show emotions with clarity, something I couldn’t do before. It’s one book you won’t want to do without.
Do you struggle with Show, don’t tell? How do you deal with it? Leave a comment below.