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  • Writer's pictureCassandra Giovanni

Using Show and Tell in Writing

This #WritingWednesday we're going to focus on something that is hotly debated and always talked about in the writing world: show not tell. What you might have noticed is I use the word and in the header. The reason for this is because writing is all about balancing elements. If you try to tell too much, you end up with something that reads more like a movie script than a novel, and if you show too much, well, we all know that's just boring. Today, we have three quick tips to help you balance the show and tell pieces of your novel.

1. Use Beats.

What's a beat? It's a bit of physical action that helps to show what your characters are feeling. These are great to help balance out dialogue tags. Interestingly enough, I was looking for a supplement to The Emotions Thesaurus and happened on a book that said it was all about 'emotional beats.' I downloaded a copy and was stunned to find that many of the 'beats' they included were, in fact, sloppy dialogue tags. If you read my blog post on how to write better dialogue, you know that I recommended you use standard dialogue tags like says, reply. Beats are not just one word like bellowed, screamed, yelled, or gasped (you can't gasp out a sentence -- at least not the way many use it in writing). So, what is a tell versus a beat?

TELL: "No!" she bellowed. "You need to fix this right now!"

SHOW: "No!" She turned, stabbing my chest with her finger. "You're going to fix this right now."

Which one gives us a better idea of the characters reaction? The show, of course! One way to think of show and tell is this way:

You'd rather watch a show then have someone tell you what's going on, wouldn't you?

2. Talk It Out

Look at your inner monologue, and see if you can break it out into dialogue. Something to keep in mind with this is that balance we hinted at earlier. You don't want to have too much dialogue, but at the same time, if there is something that can be better visualized through a conversation, then do it! This can help you to accomplish either one of two goals -- increase the length of your story or reduce it. It just depends on where that dialogue takes you, and it may add interest, especially with beats, that your story didn't have before.

3. Look for Bulk.

Do you have pages and pages without dialogue? While in some genres long amounts of description and inner monologue are acceptable, it can often be tedious. You can utilize tip two to break up swaths of text, but you should also really look to see if it's needed. You will always, and should always, know more about your characters and their backstory than your readers ever will. There's just some things your readers don't need or care to know. When you're evaluating your 'bulk' ask yourself:

  • Does this add texture to the story? Or am I just writing prose for the sake of prose?

  • Does this show something about the character, how they feel about their world?

  • Would the character actually notice this detail?

  • Would the story be materially affected if I removed it?

To illustrate this, a few years back I was reading a book where the character was in a high-stress situation. The swaths of description included the shape of the room, along with other pointless minute details. I don't know about you, but I don't care if the room is circular if someone is holding a knife to my neck -- unless it relates to how I'm going to get out of the room -- which it didn't in this case.

What #writingtips do you have for #shownottell / #showandtell ?

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