Show, Don’t Tell: What This Advice Really Means
You’ve probably heard the advice to “show, not tell,” but what does this really mean?
In general, the advice to “show, don’t tell” means that a writer should relate information to readers through sensory details and actions rather than exposition.
And the thought behind this advice is that showing sensory details and actions will help create a more immersive experience for the readers. It will allow readers to “be in the room” with your characters, experiencing whatever they’re experiencing.
So, in short: showing illustrates something, while telling merely states something.
Here’s a quick example of showing versus telling in the way most writers think of it:
- Telling: I walked through the forest. It was already Fall, and I was getting cold.
- Showing: The dry orange leaves crunched under my feet as I pulled up the collar of my coat.
So, that’s good advice, right? The second example is a lot more engaging than the first. However, this isn’t really a first-draft problem. It’s not the best thing to be focused on when you’re writing your first draft and trying to piece together a compelling narrative. And because of that, this advice tends to leave a lot of writers feeling stuck and like they’re spinning their wheels trying to show all these different sensory details.
Now, I just said that showing sensory details that pull a reader into a scene is good, right? And I also said that this isn’t something you should worry about while writing a first draft. So, what do I mean by that? And what should you focus on while writing your first draft? Well, let’s bring things back to basics…
What does “show, don’t tell” really mean?
People read fiction to have an emotional experience—and each genre works to evoke different emotions in readers. But how do we go about making sure they actually have an emotional experience while reading our novels?
Well, this is where “show, don’t tell” comes in—and this is what I meant earlier when I said this advice probably doesn’t mean what you think.
The advice to “show, don’t tell” really has two different layers to it. The first one is what we talked about earlier—using sensory details and actions that help immerse readers into a scene. The second one is all about showing your character’s emotional reaction to what’s happening in a scene—and there are three main ways to do this.
3 Methods to Show Emotion in Your Characters
#1. You can tell readers what your character is feeling.
In other words, you can name a character’s emotions like this: “Maggie feels sad.” Or “James was thrilled.” But I recommend using this method sparingly. Why?
Many writers will start a scene telling readers how their character is feeling, but then they have to increase the severity of the words they use because how do you show sadness unfold after you’ve already said that the character is sad? It’s hard, right? Then, the writers rely on things like body language or bodily sensations to convey emotion, and the scene becomes way too dramatic.
So, again, this is not a method you want to rely on or use too much, but it is one way that you can convey the emotions your character is feeling.
#2. You can show emotions via body language, bodily sensations, and physical tells.
For example, you could say something like, “Jane’s eyes were dull and lifeless. She felt pain in her chest, despite her sluggish heartbeat. Her body felt like it was going to collapse on itself.”
But keep in mind that although physical reactions are visibly helpful, they barely convey what your character is feeling at the moment.
In the example above, can you guess what Jane is feeling?
I could guess ten different things, and who knows if I would be correct. Just because we say that Jane has dull and lifeless eyes and feels like her body is going to collapse in on itself… We have no idea what this means or how Jane is actually feeling. So, we don’t know how she’s feeling, and we don’t know the source of those feelings.
And this isn’t going to evoke emotion from readers. Your character can slam their fist on the table or clench their jaw, but I promise you that the reader will feel nothing. So, yes, you’ve shown the physical reaction, but you haven’t made the reader feel anything.
This is one of the reasons why I don’t want you to rely on using body language or physical tells to convey emotion in your story. The other reason is that it’s super easy to slip into melodrama or rely on cliches when you use too many physical reactions like this in your story. So, use this method in moderation.
#3. You can show readers what your character is thinking in response to what’s happening in the scene.
Showing your character’s thoughts in reaction to the external events of the story is the most powerful way to a) create empathy between readers and your character, b) reveal who your character is, and c) evoke an emotional response in readers.
Novels are the only medium that lets the reader into the character’s head, so if we don’t give readers to our character’s psyche—if we don’t let them in, they’re going to feel cheated—and they’re not going to have an emotional experience.
Readers want to know the meaning behind what’s happening in the story—they want to know what your characters are thinking or what a moment means to them or how their perceptions change over time. It doesn’t matter how dramatic the events of your plot are. Without a sense of the meaning behind what happens, readers won’t have a reason to keep turning pages.
Thoughts, more than body language, convey character emotion.
We can definitely learn about people from what they say and do, but imagine what we could learn if we could see someone’s thoughts! We’d be privy to their biases, hopes, fears, longings, and emotional turmoil. We’d know exactly what kind of person they are because we’d be seeing their inner life.
And this is especially true for complex emotions. Complex emotions are best revealed through what your character thinks. And that’s because if readers know the source of the emotions or the why behind how they’re feeling, then they can empathize with your character. And they’ll feel those complex emotions by placing themselves in that situation. So, they’ll be feeling the complex emotions that you do not name outright.
When done right, this will make a reader feel like they know your characters better and make them feel more engaged in the story. Since the reader has been in your character’s head, and they’ve had to judge situations and make their own decisions about how your character is processing the events of the story, they now feel included, and emotionally invested. And every author should pick creating that experience for their reader over just telling them stuff with every sentence they write.
Now, most of the manuscripts I edit lack this type of interiority or the point of view character’s thoughts and emotional reactions. So, why is that?
Well, first of all, a lot of writers I work with don’t know they have to include this stuff. But second of all, many tend to shy away from showing the readers what the POV character is thinking or feeling because they think it gives away too much or leads the reader by the nose. So, they don’t want to be too obvious regarding what their characters are thinking or feeling. But in most cases, writers take this too far and put close to nothing on the page in terms of their character’s emotional reaction.
The other thing I’ve realized is that there are a lot of methods out there that teach writers how to plot out their books–so things like the classic three-act structure, the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat!, or other external plotting methods. And these methods can be wonderful, don’t get me wrong. A lot of writers I know and work with use these methods, and it works out for them.
But these methods often work better for screenplays than novels, because screenplays are all about the plot–or what happens when. Screenwriters don’t have to describe body language or intonation or facial expressions or what the characters are thinking, or sometimes even what happened in the characters’ past or where people are standing in a room. Those things are left to the director and the actors to interpret, which is why we can have 3 million different and equally effective movie versions of “Romeo and Juliet.”
But relying solely on the plot doesn’t work for a novel because it is the most interior of all art forms. A novel invites us into someone else’s mind and lets us follow along as they make meaning of what is happening to them. As the character makes sense of events, so does the reader.
This means that a novelist must convey everything–body language, intonation, facial expression, what the characters are thinking, what happened in that character’s past, or where people are standing in a room.
A novel that simply describes what happened when is going to fall flat.
And not only that, but the characters won’t behave believably on the page. I see this all the time. When someone says or does something unexpected, it’s not common for us to react quickly or logically, right? But writers often show their characters rushing into saying something without taking a second to process what’s been said. In real life, unexpected things short-circuit us for a moment. So, if we want to mimic real life, we need to think about things like that.
Now, it’s definitely more challenging to use this third method in your draft–it takes longer, and you have to dig deeper, but this is what it takes to write quality fiction that readers will connect to–and that will evoke emotions in readers, too.
So, this is the technique I want you to rely on the most–especially for your first draft. When in doubt, include more of your character’s thoughts and feelings than you think necessary, and then pare everything back later once you’re done.
So, that wraps up the three methods for evoking emotions in readers. It also wraps up my favorite way of thinking about the common advice to “show, don’t tell.”
As a bonus tip that will help you integrate this advice into your writing practice, I want you to get in the habit of tearing apart what you read and write. Print out some pages of your favorite novel and look at all the different ways that the author conveys character emotion to readers. This will fast-track you to becoming an emotional master, and it will improve all your future drafts!