Show, not Tell

There are 3 rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Lesson 14

with 2 comments


The Joker

The Joker


How do you show emotion? It’s something most amateur writers struggle with, including me. The truth of the matter is that showing and telling is the difference between writing a story and writing an essay.

He was happy.

This is a solid fact. This is what you’re reading out of material and summarizing in an essay. There are clues to this emotion and you draw this conclusion. When you’re writing a story, you don’t need to draw conclusions for your readers.

He was smiling.

This is also a solid fact, but it’s just the fact of action. Yes, he was smiling, what about it? It shows that he’s happy or that he’s feeling happiness. People usually only smile when they’re feeling happy. When you read about someone smiling or laughing, you usually come to the conclusion that they’re happy without being told.

So, how do you get from happy to smiling, anger to clenched fists, and sad to a pout? Just one key rule:

Think of your characters as actors.

They aren’t actors, of course, but they need to express their emotion. As the writer, you don’t need to tell you readers what your characters are feeling as long as your characters are expressing those emotions. What would an actor do to show they’re sad, angry, or happy?

When I made this realization, I couldn’t really find the right actions or cues to show how my characters were feeling. It’s hard work to write about things you’re doing naturally. I stumbled across the Bookshelf Muse and used their emotion thesaurus until it clicked. Anyone who’s not sure about showing and telling should bookmark it!

So, how do you know if you’re telling instead of showing?

A critique partner should be able to tell you. If you want to try to find it yourself, look for all of the times something could be shown instead. Readers like to use their imagination and if you’re telling them everything, then they’re going to get bored.

Don’t bore your readers!


Written by Jessica Lei

October 6, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Lessons, Writing

2 Responses

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  1. Good way to think about it. As long as my characters don’t ask for more than a mil to play the parts…


    October 6, 2010 at 6:53 am

    • I hadn’t thought about that. I’d just blackmail them into it anyway though.

      Jessica Lei

      October 6, 2010 at 11:43 am

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