Show Don’t Tell: an Excuse to Stare and Eavesdrop

Noisy class during first day of Creative Writi...

Watch people to improve your Show Don't Tell ability. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Your creative writing teacher said, “Show Don’t Tell.” All the advice you’ve read on honing your fiction repeated, “Show Don’t Tell.” And just when you thought you couldn’t stand another piece of advice that you’re helpless to employ, a blog writer writes, “Show Don’t Tell.”

I know, I know. What does Show Don’t Tell even mean? When I finally got a grasp on how to show my readers what characters are feeling and thinking, the rest was just eye and ear candy.

Here are some tips to help you develop your own Show Don’t Tell method:

1. Watch people. I know your mother probably told you not to stare, but I’m granting you a reprieve. Sit in your car (or in some other place where you can see people without hearing them) and just watch. I’ll bet that you can guess people’s moods, their industry, their financial status, and even their sexual preferences by watching how they dress, move, and interact with others. You can surmise their stress levels. You can guess their age, eating habits, and affinity for physical activity. Once you come to a conclusion about someone, ask yourself what visual clues you used to develop your opinion. Now use descriptive and action words to show the same to your readers.

2. Listen closely to the way different types of people speak. Showing dialect with apostrophes and misspelled words in dialogue can be distracting for readers, but using localized phrasing and tweaked word arrangement can give clues into your characters’ education and social situation, as well as to where they come from.

3. Dialogue tags that tell how a phrase was delivered can tell readers about how your character is feeling. Think about this: If you ask someone how he’s doing, and he answers “Fine!” you can’t gain much information from the word alone. However, if you listen to how he says it, you’ll gain a lot of insight. For instance, if his words are bouncy, he’s probably in a good mood. If the single syllable is drawn out and accompanied by a sexy lilt, he’s probably indicating that he’s fully aware of the fact that he’s a beefcake. If its short, curt, and jabbing, he’s likely being sarcastic and using that single word to lash out…look out!

Readers don’t want to be taken by the hand and spoken to like village idiots. They want to close a book believing that they contributed some of their own genius to the interpretation of your story. In order for that to happen, you must show them the things that will naturally lead their minds to the place of your choice. If you tell them that your antagonist is a grumpy vagrant pagan with a death wish that involves his fellow gang members, the story will fall flat. If you show them the clues that will lead them to this conclusion, you will inflate both your story and your readers’ interest levels.

So feel free to stare, to eavesdrop, and to be taken by the visceral reactions that others evoke in you. Then craft replicas for your readers — in a dramatic display of Show Don’t Tell.

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One response to “Show Don’t Tell: an Excuse to Stare and Eavesdrop

  1. Pingback: Dialogue Exercise: Eavesdropping « Writing Tips

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