Bridge to Story

How To Show It, When To Tell It

Novice writers begin with a picture in their minds. They can see and hear and feel what they imagine their characters are doing. Scenes are right in front of their eyes. Those scenes are alive with action. So they try to capture and set all that down on the page.

Pictures are set to words. But this fails when the writer only reads back words that seem tongue-tied on the page.

The problem is a shift between our right brain work (picturing the scene) and our left brain work (using words to capture a visual). Showing not telling works to fix this disconnect, and it happens not in the first writing, but in revisions. Re-Vision-ing, re-seeing...

We live in a world of our five senses. The best writing allows these five senses into their work not as an addition, to flesh things out, but as a base of their writing. We will take your own work and find ways to edit for the senses. We’ll take the summary of narration and move it toward the scene that can be pictured by your readers.

Let’s look at this one: a Main character dreams, while in the bathroom, of what lotto numbers she’ll use. Go to the example and let’s see what we can do.

Example Toggle

Example:

For the novice writer the phrase ‘Show Don't Tell’ may have begun to get on your nerves by now. Especially if you don't see what the difference is between the two, or you do see the difference, but you can’t make your words do the ‘Show Don't Tell’ tango on the page.

Before:

You could have written these 103 words that tells us a lot:

Christina stepped on her bathroom scale. She’s got her towel on, just out of her morning shower. She weighed 185 pounds. But instead of seeing her weight she just thought two of the numbers would be good for her next lotto ticket. She’d be rich with those numbers. She’d choose 18 and 5, she decided as she dried off after showering. That meant three other numbers to find. She uses Avon lotion to moisturize with. And her towel drops as she does her leg. As she does the other leg she thinks maybe she’ll use the number 19 too. Like she did last time.

Or you could have written these 99 words that show us more:

After:

The scale reads 185.

“Cool.” Christina nods, her damp hand against the wall to steady herself and her bath towel pressed tight against her middle so she can see the jiggling numbers. “There’s two, 18, and 5. Cool, just three more to find, and I’m rich.” She steps off the scale, sets her leg up on the rim of the tub, squirting pale yellow Avon lotion along the length of her shin. Her towel drops away and the remaining patches of dampness tingle on the back of her thighs and neck, making her skin prick up. “Maybe 19 again?” she asks her cat.

Here are the actions from above– but notice that Christina, is not the only one in action.

  • The scale reads. Her bath towel is pressed. Numbers jiggle.
  • Her towel drops away. Patches of dampness remain and tingle.
  • Her skin pricks up.

Can we say the same thing for the BEFORE example? Here's the goal for this lesson:

When you remember a well-told story, it’s one with actions. And those actions made the reader lose themselves in the passages. They allowed a visual experiencing of the words— with showing. The writer puts in the details, the reactions to dialog, the deeds that telling can't convey well enough.

Showing let's your reader feel the weight of the Maltese falcon in their hands. To shrink back from the boogieman. To nod their head and to clap their hands when Peter begs them to clap along for the sake of wee dying Tinkerbelle.

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

Can you make of list of things that will happen in your story, scene by scene?

(This list is not you writing your story out. It’s a list of the actions: things that happen in your story. Don’t add in the whys. Just list the things that happen.)

Example: In one writer’s story the Main character wakes, and gets ready for the day by doing things before going to work.

  • Opens eyes and sees it is morning.
  • Decides to close eyes a bit longer
  • Rolls over and ignores the daylight
  • Gives up trying to go back to sleep and gets out of bed.
  • Scratches herself in various places
  • Et cetera...

The writer hasn’t written a story of the morning yet. Did you notice all the action words that make up the list? Did it dawn on you that some of this action has no use in storytelling about this character? Humm.  She’s only made a list. Where are the storytelling bits of her actions list?

Let’s try again:

  • Main character dreams while in the shower what lotto numbers she’ll use.
  • She prepares breakfast for her stoner step dad.
  • She walks to the bus to go to work.
  • She busies herself with the lotto numbers in her mind
  • A customer gives her the last number she needs.

Do that with your story. Do it scene by scene from your complete first draft—write up a list of action words. Just a list of what happens. Once you have a list select one of the lines and write your scene.

Doing things this way, you will see your story. You will see the actions and movements and you can then paint a picture about your story with that action. You’ll also see what to remove. The trick here is to tell yourself (in your list) what will happen, then take that telling and move it to showing when you start to write, or when you begin to revise what's already written.

Remember to rebuild scenes that will engage a reader like straight narration rarely can. Focus on taking that first draft of narration and, through revision (re-seeing), move on to the second step of turning it back into the visual, visceral, and physical scene you first experienced in your mind.