A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
What do we mean when we say ‘show, don’t tell’? Chekhov has a great quote that goes something like, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining – show me the glint of light on the glass.’ It’s a beautiful way of putting it and I try to keep this in mind, particularly when I am writing about atmosphere or emotion.
If you just say ‘the woods were scary’, for example, then that’s rather flat and meaningless. A reader will understand what you mean, but they won’t really feel it in the way you want them to. The trick is to use detail: such as the greenish tinge to the light, or the way the branches reached out to grasp you, or the hissing of the breeze in the leaves. That way, you don’t have to say – or tell – that the woods are scary. The reader will get it.
It’s the same with emotions. If you write that a character is ‘angry’ or ‘terrified’, readers will not really feel that emotion along with your character. Here, it’s better to use a bit of body language, or action, or even dialogue to show the reader what’s going on and help them get under the skin of the character with you. So if you want to show that a character is terrified, have their heart thudding or have them sweating or paralysed, as a simple example. If you show a character pacing the room or biting their nails, there is no need to tell the reader that they are anxious. Have you ever mimicked an action as you read it, such as clenching a fist or raising an eyebrow? That’s how viscerally readers can feel emotion when it’s effectively shown in prose. You get right under their skin.
How to do it? I don’t advise letting it hold up the flow of the writing, but ‘show, don’t tell’ should be a consideration when you are revising. In your edit, look out for places where you have told something that could better be shown. One technique is to take a few moments to imagine how that emotion feels. In other words, picture yourself in this character’s situation and imagine how your own body would respond, or what you might do in terms of an action, almost like an actor. It may be, to give a simple example, that when a character is afraid, she grows cold, or starts to shiver. Or, that when he is angry his insides grow hot and his stomach churns. Take out ‘she was afraid’ and ‘he was angry’ and write the action or body language in place of it. Crucially – and this is really key – have the courage not to tell the reader what is going on and trust that they will understand.
A final tip – adverbs tend to ‘tell’. So try to avoid ‘angrily’, ‘sadly’, dejectedly’ or whatever – the actions or dialogue should be enough, without you having to add one of these clumsy things.
I know this asks a lot of a writer and I see the students I tutor resisting it all the time, trying to find reasons why they have to ‘tell’. I think this has to do with an over-concern about getting a message across and being sure the reader understands. But you are aiming at readers – they love books! So you can credit them with imagination and empathy. ‘Show, don’t tell’ may well make the writer work a little harder at their craft – but the effect is worth it.
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Bea Davenport is the writing name of former journalist Barbara Henderson. Bea worked in newspapers and broadcasting for a long time, including seventeen years at BBC North in Newcastle, where she worked on TV, radio and online.
She left journalism to study for a Creative Writing PhD at Newcastle University. The children’s novel written as part of that, The Serpent House, was published by Curious Fox in June 2014. It is a historical time-fantasy inspired by the medieval leper hospital once sited in the village where Bea now lives. Before being commissioned by Curious Fox, it was shortlisted for the 2010 Times/Chicken House Award.
The Serpent House was Bea’s first novel for children, although she has two adult crime/suspense novels published by Legend Press.
In 2014, Bea worked with Fiction Express on an interactive e-book where school pupils read a chapter each week and chose what should happen next. Bea then wrote the next chapter in time for the following Friday! The paperback version of the book, My Cousin Faustina, is now published by ReadZone Books.
She is programme leader in creative writing for the Open College of the Arts. She lives in Berwick-upon Tweed on the Northumberland-Scottish border with her partner, children and a naughty cat.