Show What, Exactly? (Encore)

If there’s one piece of writing advice that predates all others, I’d guess it’s the “Show, don’t tell” mantra. And there’s plenty of proof that the tired, old adage is dead on the money. If anything, in today’s crash-bang-boom-sound-bite-MTV era, the need for showing over-telling is more important than ever.

Consider these two images. Both depict a dog who is, well, dog tired. Which of these two photos is more memorable? Which one actually says something about how tired the dog is? This is a fairly typical example of the Show Don’t Tell concept. It’s: “the dog was tired” versus “the dog dropped to the floor and rolled on his back in exhaustion.” One informs; the other paints a picture.

The concept also applies to what goes on internally. What is a character thinking or feeling that can be demonstrated through their actions? How can we show those things?

One answer, I think, requires a bit of play-acting on the part of the writer. Consider a simple, domestic scene. Your character is a male, and he’s facing a task that deeply troubles him. How do you show that? Try putting yourself in his shoes and think about what you’d do. It’s morning; there’s a box of cereal, a bowl, and a banana waiting for you. You’re in a foul mood to begin with when you notice the cereal box is all but empty. The banana looks more brown than yellow, and a whiff of the milk suggests it’s gone way past “iffy.” How do you react? How hard do you slam the over-ripe fruit into the trash? What about the milk? How gently do you dispose of it? Do you search for another box of cereal? What if the only thing you can find are Quaker’s Indigo Sugar Bombs or Kellog’s Stix and Twigs?

The spoon and bowl suddenly become players. What do you do with them? Do you go ahead and eat something anyway? How viciously do you chew? How angrily do you tear open the cereal box? How nasty is the note you write for whoever does the grocery shopping? Or, do you put everything back the way you found it and hope someone else deals with it? Either way, you’re showing, not telling.

The point is, any or all of these things provide a means of demonstrating a character’s feelings. A good writer doesn’t have to mention anger, frustration, displeasure, or even annoyance. That’s all perfectly clear because it’s been shown.

If using props doesn’t work for you, try focusing on reactions. Your character could be late for a meeting, a lover’s rendezvous, or an assassination attempt. Traffic is terrible, or the train is too crowded, or the weather has created problems for everyone. How does your character react? More importantly, how would YOU react in such a situation? Would you slam doors? Scream at other drivers? Bodyslam your way onto the subway?

If that doesn’t float your showmanship boat, try costuming. Go to a second-hand store and look for garments that might appeal to your characters. How do they feel when wearing them? How do YOU feel? Try something utterly inappropriate. How does that work? Imagine yourself wearing it, not because you want to, but because you have to. How does that flavor your emotions? Simply donning such costumes provides a rich opportunity for expression. Yank the belt tight. Throw the scarf over one shoulder. Button the too-tight jacket. Translate your feelings, your actions, and your emotions to your characters.

Or, finally, imagine yourself receiving bad news. How do you react? Do you weep and tear at your hair? Wring your hands? Throw things? What if it’s good news? Do you shout? Weep for joy? Call your friends and neighbors? Whatever your reaction, it’s a safe bet your readers will have experienced something similar, and when they read how your character responds, it will trigger their own memories and feelings.

When you can do that, you’ll OWN your audience. They’ll follow you almost anywhere.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Memoir, novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Show What, Exactly? (Encore)


    Love the image of those dogs! You are THE very best teacher! Thanks, Erika

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Betty Smith says:

    Sometimes easier said than done.

    • joshlangston says:

      Fiddlesticks, m’dear! Just step into your role as stage director and tell your character how to act: “Once again, with feeling this time, Hortense. Back of the hand to forehead, a bit of upward eye-rolling, then crumple neatly to the floor. Careful not to upset the tea cart on the way down.”

  3. Karen Boyce says:

    Hi Josh, what a terrific explanation of this writing skill! Your examples are real, easy to grasp and remember too. I need to work on this soon!

  4. Barry Womack says:

    Spot on Josh! I Just threw my hands in the air and emptied my desk tray. I gave my desk chair an extra three-sixty twirl, a recently liberated Sharpie Highlighter held high in my right hand. I grabbed Naked Notes, Write Naked! and the Naked Novelist! off their dust laden shelf and went to work.

  5. Karen Woodcock says:

    Loved this post, mainly because it’s something I struggle with. You are such a great teacher.

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