Three Tricks For Showing Rather Than Telling
by Trish Wilkinson
For readers to become invested in a story, they need to “see” characters’ movement and action within a setting. Writers often hear, “Show don’t tell,” and sometimes we think, “But I did show – didn’t I? How do I fix this?”
Here are a few quick tips for showing rather than telling:
- Use ACTIVE VERBS rather than passive ones wherever possible.
Keep this list of passive verbs near your computer until you get in the habit of using them sparingly. (I tell my students: “If you must use passive verbs, limit them to no more than one or two on a page.”)
- Forms of be to AVOID: is, are, was, were, be, being, and been
- Auxiliary verbs: am, did, do, does, can, may, might, will, would, shall, should, must, has, have, had, could
- Adjectives (describing words)
- Adverbs (words used to modify verbs that tell us when, where, how, in what manner, or to what extent – words ending in –ly; other examples: yesterday, here, barefoot, fastest)
Telling/Passive: She was running quickly to the dilapidated shed because she needed a place to hide.
Showing/Active: She sprinted to the shed, slipped inside, and crouched under a sawhorse behind a stack of paint cans.
- Place your characters in a setting at the beginning of every scene, so your reader can “see” them.
Begin every scene with a few words of setting BEFORE a character shares thoughts or engages in conversation. Otherwise, fuzzy talking heads float in space until the writer gets around to putting the characters in a specific location.
I heard the T.V., so I went to the living room and found my dad on the couch rubbing his temples.
“You got it wrong,” I said. “Someday these time-wasting doodles will make me rich.”
A quick aside: Forget all the fancy words you learned in middle school – replied, chortled, stuttered, etc. – and use SAID, which is considered the invisible dialogue tag.
- Write ACTION TAGS within conversations rather than dialogue tags wherever possible.
If your characters shove their hands in their pockets or tuck a curl behind an ear or move to the other side of the room, action tags can show details and movement, adding to the depth of the scene.
I heard the T.V., so I went to the living room and found my dad on the couch, rubbing his temples.
“You got it wrong.” I dropped my drawing in front of him on the coffee table. “Someday these time-wasting doodles will make me rich.”
These three things: active verbs, establishing the setting, and using action tags in dialogue, will transform your scenes from flat and fuzzy into mental motion pictures.
Trish Wilkinson is a writing coach, content and line editor. You can find her at: www.write-to-win.com
Thanks Trish for sharing your expertise with us. I am sure it will help many of the new writers who visit and also help remind the rest of us to always strive for an active voice.