Showing instead of telling is some basic advice you’ve likely heard many times. Let’s talk about exactly what it means.
Telling is when you’re explaining to the reader how they should understand or feel something, instead of just letting them experience it.
One way writers do this is by labeling emotions. You have a character named Gabby and she’s angry, so you write, “Gabby was angry.”
Some ways to show that Gabby was angry:
- “Gabby clenched her fists until her knuckles turned white.”
- “Gabby stomped upstairs and the chandelier shuddered when she slammed the bedroom door.”
Both of these examples describe what Gabby is doing and it’s clear she’s angry. You don’t have to explicitly say that she is.
When you label emotions, you’re doing two things. One, you’re belittling the audience by assuming they’re not intelligent enough to understand if you don’t explain it. And two, you’re robbing them of a more tangible, sensory experience by replacing description with telly labels.
A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea (duh), and abstractions are the “idea” category of noun. An abstraction is something you can’t tangibly sense. It doesn’t look, sound, feel, smell, taste like anything.
Everyone pictures something when they see these words, but they don’t all picture the same thing.
If you write the word “freedom,” one person might think of a chain being broken, one might think of a bird flying, one might think of homework paper fluttering down from a staircase on the last day of class.
But a concrete word is something that makes a specific image–like “chair.” If you write “chair,” everyone sees a chair. If you write “dining room chair,” everyone sees almost the exact same thing.
The difference between an abstraction and a concrete image is that an abstraction can be anything, while a concrete image will provide a consistent thought for everyone.
The more specific you are, the more accurately you can convey your ideas, and the closer to your vision the reader’s understanding will be.
My short story, Wolverine Frogs, is about a girl who developed PTSD after an attack. The last lines of the story could have been:
I am ashamed that I couldn’t stop what happened. I blame myself and I hate that he moved on with his life and I can’t.
But instead, I wrote:
The skin around my nails is still raw. I keep scrubbing them, even though his blood is long gone and replaced by my own, many times over.
In the context of the story, the ending still conveys that the character is ashamed of what happened and blames herself and hates that he moved on and she can’t, but it doesn’t tell you. It shows you.
That’s an example of using imagery to replace abstractions when you’re talking about how a character is feeling or thinking, but you can also show instead of tell to describe a scene.
Another short story, Winnow, describes a character’s bedroom. I could have written:
I still live in my childhood room. It’s dirty and old and I wish I could move out.
Instead, I wrote:
The yellow-tinged spot in the corner of my ceiling is growing with the heavy summer rains this year, stretching toward my ceiling fan. The fan is out of balance and squeaks and wheezes with every slow rotation, blurring glow-in-the-dark stars that haven’t glowed in years.
You can see from that description that her room is dingy. It provides setting with the summer rain. The stickers don’t glow anymore, so you know she’s been there for a while. The mood of it lets you know she’s not thrilled to be there.
Both of these examples convey everything the first versions do, but they use concrete imagery to do so.
Check your writing for abstractions. And, as often as you can, show instead of tell because this will create a richer image and make your story more impactful.
Check out my video tutorial for more examples.