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Show don’t tell: How to bring your reader into the moment

If you want your writing to be noticed by a publisher or an agent, it’s vital you master the art of ‘show don’t tell.’ Here’s how …

To bring the reader into your story and – more importantly – to keep them there, your words need to be truly engaging on the page. And to do that, you need to bring the reader into the experience.

The difference between showing and telling

Most new writers tell a story as though they’re recounting an event that happened to a friend – this happened, that happened etc. The goal, though, is to bring the reader into the moment, into your body or mind’s eye, so that they feel what you felt, hear what you heard, see what you saw.

For example:

You might report that a character is ‘small,’ or ‘scared,’ or ‘freezing,’ or ‘exhausted.’

That’s telling.

Showing would paint a picture the reader could see in their mind’s eye.

If your character is small, your reader can deduce that because you mention others looking down when they talk with him. Or perhaps he stands on tip toes, when posing for a photo.

Rather than your character being scared, show that he is by describing his eyes widening, his body shrinking, his throat tightening, his voice becoming small, his hands starting to shake.

You don’t have to tell when you show.

What to show and what to tell: how to choose

You don’t need to show everything. It’s helpful to choose in advance which scenes you’re going to show – and they should be the scenes that are most important, most relevant to the story.

The best scenes are ones that illustrate significant moments or turning points, creating a shift or detour in the story arc.

First drafts are usually telling, not showing

First drafts are almost always a summary of what happened. It’s important to then go back and shift the language to bring the reader into the experience.

Don’t worry if your first draft – or your fourth – is still in ‘telling’ mode. The benefit of writing in telling mode first is that you can go back and select which scenes and moments you want to expand upon through showing.

Exercise: How to show

Choose a personal experience – a pivotal moment in your life, and one that later turned out to be a turning point.

Close your eyes and watch the scene as if it were happening now, in front of your eyes.

What do you see? Hear? Smell? Taste? Touch? Bring us into your environment.

What thoughts are going through your mind?

What are you feeling – physically, emotionally?

Who else is there?

What are you doing, physically? What are other people doing?

How does the conversation unfold? (Using dialogue is a good way to ‘show’.)

How did the various people involved reveal their personalities

through dialogue or action?

For further help with your writing or editing, contact me.