Lesson 5: Show, Not Tell
In this lesson, we’ll be offering you different tips that will help you master the technique of showing, not telling.
- To define and discuss how to show, not tell.
- To offer different tips and tricks on this technique.
- To show examples of how to use this technique when writing.
Quick Navigation through the Lesson 5:
- Use adjectives sparingly
- Focus on the story
- Ask yourself the right questions
- Use actions
- Don’t spoon-feed the audience
One of the best techniques when it comes to writing is that of show, not tell. Mastering this method helps you write vivid pieces of work that are engaging and that keep your audience’s focus. In this lesson, we’ll be enumerating different concrete tips and examples that will help you become an expert at coming up with interesting and captivating written work.
Use adjectives sparingly
Many a writer has said that an adjective is the lazy writer’s best friend. Filling your paragraphs with adjectives makes your sentences long but boring. Instead of using adjectives, try writing sentences that describe what is being done creatively and in a manner that evokes insight. Instead, you can use anecdotes and situational occurrences to get your messages across. This helps keep your audience engaged.
Below is an example of a paragraph that tells:
(Note: The adjectives are underlined.)
Jessa was beautiful. Mark really liked her. The first time he saw her, he knew he really, really liked her. She was sitting at her table pristinely. Her dark hair shone beautifully and she crossed her legs gracefully. Everybody else also really liked Jessa. Mark wasn’t sure why she liked him. He thought he was kind of boring. He was constantly filled with extraordinary admiration for her gorgeousness.
Below is the same example written in a way that shows:
Jessa was the kind of woman, in Mark’s opinion, that men like him just did not end up with. She was the kind of girl that always had someone walking after her in class, the kind of woman who never carried her own things—hand bags, books, laptop. There was always some scumbag around, waiting to be graced with these objects. He pitied them because he knew, somehow, that he was just like them. He knew it by the way they looked at her: mouths upturned like they couldn’t believe their luck, lips slightly open, just inviting the dribble of drool. He knew it by their receding hairlines, by the bite marks around their nails, their pants that never quite fit, the sweat staining their collars.
He was not the kind of man who ended up with women like Jessa Hartman. He knew it the first time he saw her, and he knew it now—after seven years of being married to her. That first day in college when he’d walked into Economics and seen her sitting at her desk with her dark hair hanging around her shoulders like a waterfall that ended in her blue wool sweater, he’d known two things: that he wanted her and that he would never have her or that he couldn’t—shouldn’t.
Mark Stevens was not the kind of man who married a woman like Jessa Hartman. He was thinking this as they strolled along the streets of the Saturday market. He was thinking it as he held onto her with one hand, and her bag with the other. He was thinking of how much he pitied those fools who she dragged around—all those awkward fools who didn’t think they were good enough and couldn’t hide it. He cringed inside: at himself.
Focus on the story
Everything we write is a story—when we file a report on a meeting, we’re telling the story of things that happened in that meeting; when we document an event for a website, we’re telling the story of a happening that people took a part in putting together. Because of this, we should always remain faithful to the story or string of events: we should be mindful of the best way to honestly get our message across. Once we’re able to clearly determine what it is we want to say, it becomes a lot easier to write it down.
Ask yourself the right questions
The biggest mistake that a lot of people make when writing is that they stop at the question what? While this is important, it limits the extent to which you’re able to flesh out your ideas. After deciding on what it is you want to write, you should also decide on how you’re going to write it—or rather, what the best way to write it is: should you approach the subject objectively? Should it be from your point of view? What tone should you employ? Along with this, you should also ask yourself why you’re writing this and perhaps more importantly: why other people will be interested in reading this particular piece of writing. This will help you determine who your audience is and who will be interested in what you have to say. Moreover, this allows you to tailor-fit the way you write your paragraphs to the way best fit for your subject and your audience.
As illustrated in the example of our first point, using actions helps us flesh out our point without making the piece boring or one-dimensional. If you’re dealing with fictional characters or if you’re writing an article that involves events, describing actions helps make your piece more interesting and gives the audience more things to imagine. This helps create a more vivid scene in the reader’s mind—this makes your work an enjoyable and substantial body of work.
Don’t spoon-feed the audience
You can’t supply both the material to read and the audience’s reaction. A lot of writers tend to overcompensate for fear that their work will be boring or that the readers won’t understand it—always assume that your reader knows what you’re talking about. Or else, explain it in a manner that fits in seamlessly with the work. If you’re able to write it well enough, your readers will either be able to infer what you mean or will be interested enough to look up what you mean. Below are a couple of examples to better illustrate how this works.
Below is an example of a paragraph that spoon-feeds the audience:
(Note: observe how the author defines everything directly and interrupts the paragraph’s flow constantly, thus making it difficult to get through—also, notice how in the attempt to foresee how the audience is going to take the opinions expressed hinders the very expression of these views.)
The thing that I really love about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writing is the way that he used Magical Realism—Magical Realism is a technique that effortlessly blends in magical touches and treats them like they’re everyday occurrences—and how this was able to gracefully supplement his stories. I think that this kind of seamlessness—meaning, you can’t tell what he was thinking or you can’t easily predict that he was leading you toward this end—is what makes his fiction stand out from the rest of the Latin American fiction world (by this I mean people like Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk). You might think that this isn’t true but let me explain: Gabriel Garcia Marquez took a very journalistic approach to his work because before this, he was a journalist—he covered different murders that happened all around Latin America.
Below is the same example, written in a manner that does not spoon-feed the audience:
(Note: here, you’ll observe that the same information is used but it’s written in a way that assumes the audience knows what you’re talking about; it helps make it more interesting and doesn’t make your audience feel like you’re talking down to them.)
I really love the way that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was able to employ Magical Realism in his stories—he was able to seamlessly blend reality and magic by talking about fantastic touches as though they were everyday occurrences. A good example of this is his novella A Chronicle of A Death Foretold which was loosely based off of an unsolved murder that he covered when he was still working as a journalist. This style of writing made it almost impossible to tell what was really happening and what was being conjured by the narrator. Oddly enough, this is exactly what allowed me to engage with the text because I was always wondering what would happen next. In my opinion, this is what truly sets him apart from his contemporaries like Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk.
In this lesson we were able to discuss the different ways in which you can learn how to show, not tell. We were able to enumerate practical points that will help you achieve this. Various examples were also provided to make it easier for us to grasp how to incorporate these tips in our writing.
Up next we’ll be discussing one of the biggest challenges of writing well—dialogue. We’ll be looking at the proper way of fleshing out dialogue and what makes a good bit of written conversation. We’ll also be taking up different techniques and guidelines to help us achieve these criteria in our work.