If you’ve ever taken part in a creative writing course, no doubt you’ve heard the golden rule of “Show Don’t Tell”. When I was attending university, I often got the feeling that my lecturers were getting paid commission for the number of times they said it. But I have to admit, it’s a very good rule to write by and even now, having heard it countless hundreds of times, I sometimes find myself forgetting to use it so I think it’s worth mentioning again.
The basic idea is that rather than simply stating plainly what your character is feeling, or what sort of atmosphere they are experiencing, you should use solid details to help your reader come to the conclusion by themselves. In doing this, you will find your character and world building becomes far more immersive as readers will be able to relate to a concrete description more easily than they could with a generic adjective or adverb. Consider the example below;
“Bob was angry because his best man forgot to bring the rings to his wedding.”
Clearly, this leaves a lot of questions open. What specific type of anger is he feeling? How does he react to it? By showing the reader that he is angry rather than telling them, we can find out more about Bob’s character and better identify with him.
“The wheels of Bob’s car skidded against the hot tarmac as he sped away from the church. He couldn’t believe it. After nearly two years of planning and spending more money than he had ever parted with in his life, that idiot Larry couldn’t even manage one job. All he had to do was show up to the ceremony sober and with the rings in hand but apparently that was too much to ask. Approaching a set of red lights, Bob barely slowed, but sped across the intersection, spitting curses under his breath to the drivers who honked as he passed. Larry’s house was at least a half-hour drive away and there was no time to waste. The image of Sharon’s disappointed face was still fresh in his mind.”
This passage is quite a bit longer than the first, but infinitely more useful. We don’t just find out that Bob is angry, but we learn more about him through the situation and the way he reacts to it, which is an important part of character-building. In the first passage, the “Bob” described is quite anonymous but by adding the extra details and “showing” the reader the situation, he becomes a more unique character who we can recognise and develop opinions about.
Next I want to talk about adverbs, which can be a barrier to “showing”, as I will explain. When I was in university, my lecturers straight-out banned us from using them, although my personal opinion is that they can be useful and valid, in the right context. When creating the atmosphere for a scene, adverbs can sometimes prevent us from going into detail, much like in the first example. Before you use one, ask yourself if there is some way you can imply that adverb through other means. For example;
“”What are you trying to say?” Sharon said, worriedly.”
Much like in the first example, we haven’t learned much about the character or the context. You don’t necessarily need to replace this adverb with a whole paragraph, as before, so don’t let that put you off. Even adding a short sentence in place of it can improve the scene.
“”What… what are you trying to say?” Sharon’s voice trembled as, through the dim candlelight inside the church, she saw a guilty expression wash over Larry’s face.”
As you can see, focusing on the “show don’t tell” rule can add depth and expression to your prose, so be sure to look out for opportunities to do this during your edits.