As a writer, I hear the same thing all the time. Show, don’t tell. But what does that really mean?
As a movie-lover, it’s an easier concept to grasp, because that’s what movies do. They show the story as it happens.
Back to writing. How do I know if I’m telling instead of showing? I have a quick method for finding “telling” indicators: adverbs. Words ending in –ly often point to instances where the writer is telling but not showing. An occasional adverb isn’t a problem, but finding dozens on a single page is a big red flag.
Here is an example: He entered the classroom timidly.
We know our subject is a male. We know he’s going into a classroom, and that he’s nervous. We don’t know anything else, because the author didn’t provide any imagery.
What does it look like? Think of the sentence as it might play out in a movie. What is happening in this picture? How long would something like this take or seem to take? Close your eyes for a moment and imagine. See every detail.
Could it be something more like this?
The steel handle felt cool in his clammy fingers. When he heard the click, he pushed the heavy door open, just enough to see what awaited him. The eyes of thirty students gazed his direction. He wanted to run, but there was no going back now. He took one step inside and then another. Half a dozen more brought him to his desk. He pressed the laminate top with his fingertips to steady his balance and his nerves.
He tried to force a smile, but it felt so uncomfortable that he gave up the attempt. He turned to the small black board behind him. He pinched his eyes closed and let the green and yellow swirls of color play in the blackness for a second or two. When he opened his eyes again he was still upright. Good. He decided to proceed.
He picked up the new white stick of chalk and pressed it to the board. It hissed through the straight lines and stuttered over the curves. He looked at the words, Mr. Trumble. He imagined the voice of the little boy from his first class years ago. “Mr. Trumble trembles.”
He replaced the chalk in its tray and turned to face his students. He struggled to maintain a steady breath. He could feel the drops of sweat forming in his hairline. He blinked several times. “Good morning, class,” he said in a weak, hoarse voice.
The latter includes sensory imagery and details. The reader feels the cool handle, the weight of the door, and sweat. The reader hears the sound of the chalk against the board and his hoarse voice. The reader sees the poor man’s weak smile. More than that, the reader now feels what the man feels. The writer creates empathy with the character, and makes him real to the reader.
Even more, the reader now knows that the subject is a grown man and the teacher of the class. We know his name, and that this isn’t his first time teaching. If he’s taught before, why is he this nervous? What made him this way? What happened in his past?
This type of writing not only paints a vivid picture, but also raises questions that the writer can answer later. It begs the reader to continue.
Whenever I write, I try to include what I see in my mind’s eye, as if I were watching a movie. I try to include all the details that propel the story and make the characters richer.
If you struggle with the “show, don’t tell” concept in your writing, try this same exercise. Find the first –ly adverb in your work and imagine what the scene would look like in a movie. Say it aloud. Pretend you’re explaining it to someone who can’t see it. Write it out. That’s what storytelling is. That’s what good writing is all about.