Early and often I've heard the advice: 'Show, don't tell' when it comes to writing a compelling narrative. While it sounds simple enough, you might find it far easier to tell, not show. Let me share some examples I've culled from novels where writers showed us their story. (I've rewritten them as 'telling' statements first to illustrate the difference.)
Tell: My grandmother was a very shrewd business woman.
Show: In the late nineties, an insurance conglomerate made an offer for my grandparents' company. It was, according to everyone, a fair offer, so my grandmother asked them to double it. (City of Thieves by David Benioff)
Tell: She was having a panic attack.
Show: She sat down on the floor and leaned against the cool wall, watching her hands shake in her lap as if they couldn't be hers. She tried to focus on steadying her breath as she did when she ran. (Still Alice by Lisa Genova)
Tell: I was not popular in high school.
Show: I'm the one who sat on a folding chair out in the hall with a cigar box on my lap, selling tickets to the prom, but never going--even though in the late sixties only nerds went to proms. But I would have gone ... I wanted the phone call with the rough voice asking "Would you ...?" (Never Change by Elizabeth Berg)
Tell: She felt unexpectedly awkward in the opulent hotel.
Show: She hadn't expected the tall columns that rose to a ceiling she couldn't see clearly without squinting, or the rose carpet through those columns that was long enough for a coronation. The doorman wordlessly gave her suitcase--inadequate in this grandeur--to a bellman, as if handing off a secret. (The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve)
Tell: Like her, I was very sad.
Show: My mind, caught in the rush of her grief, tunneled away. It was as though a veil had been torn back, and I'd left this place of sorrow to enter a deeper one; one that held the other me which had been lost until this day. (The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom)
Tell: Each morning, Henry opened the pharmacy.
Show: Each morning, Henry parked in the back by the large metal bins, and then entered the pharmacy's back door, and went about switching on the lights, turning up the thermostat, or, if it was summer, getting the fans going. (Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout)
Tell: She believed in home remedies.
Show: She made them eat raw garlic to protect against colds and heart disease, rub pennyroyal on their skin to keep the mosquitoes away, drink a tea of boiled jack-in-the-pulpit when they had a cough. (Torch by Cheryl Strayed)
Tell: I was embarrassed to buy crossword puzzles.
Show: I carried them low, against my hip, as if I were toting a giant-size box of feminine products to the lone male checker in a grocery store. (Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler)
Showing your story (as opposed to telling it) accomplishes several objectives. Not only does it help the reader connect to your story, but it also gives you an opportunity to establish the tone and show us the setting. Is it cold outside? Or does the milk in the barn freeze before it hits the bucket? Is the house old and rickety? Or does the roof cry in the night against the wind while the windows shimmy in their frames?
Showing also gives your characters a chance to develop as unique individuals. Does Nancy hate going to the dentist? Or does Nancy drink a vodka tonic to calm her nerves beforehand? Is Bill afraid of getting robbed? Or does Bill carry a six-inch blade in his jacket pocket and keep a loaded handgun strapped under the counter of his store? Showing also assists you in creating voice, establishing tension, determining pace and executing a host of literary devices at your disposal.
Take a look at your work-in-progress and pull out a sentence (or two) that seems to tell-not-show and rework it. One clue for finding a sentence is to look for passive verbs. If you discover a lot of was, is, am, are, were, have, has, etc., you can probably make that sentence stronger and more compelling by changing the verb and its surrounding support system.
If you need some practice, try reworking these 'telling sentences' into show-offs:
- He never brushed his teeth.
- She loved going to the movies.
- He couldn't find the diner.
- She had money problems.
- They had a nice house.
- We need a vacation.
- He was losing his mind.
- She was very nice.
If ten people were to rewrite the above sentences, the results would likely be vastly different. That's because you and I have different ideas about what money problems are (She can't buy food or she can't qualify for a mortgage?) or why someone might need a vacation (They haven't had one in five years or they recently lost their job and wanted to get away?). Don't let your reader misinterpret what you want them to see OR give them a reason to set your book aside. Engage them in your story. Show them a good story, don't tell it to them.