Show Don’t Tell – if you don’t know what this phrase means, you’ve probably never taken a writing class or been in a writing group. It’s merely the idea that in writing a book, you’re painting a picture, not sending a telegram – don’t say “he was sad”, show how he was sad.
I struggle with SDT – struggle in remembering to do it, especially when writing in first person. I’ve recently started an exercise to help me with that. Sometimes, I will find myself trying to narrate my current situation, often Film Noir style, but sometimes just regular novel style. The exercise is to do so, and to pay specific attention to “telling” sentences and translate them into “showing” sentences.
In narrating my own events first-person, a challenge is presented because when you tell a story to another person, you are just relaying information more than painting a whole picture. “I went to the store and I was hungry so I ended up buying some bacon donuts because they looked really good. But then when I actually ate them, they weren’t that good and I was really sad about it.” You’re just trying to express you don’t actually like donuts with bacon on them. If you were to sit and say, “I went to the store and every piece of food caught my eye as my stomach made soft growling noises, and my willpower softened with each delicious item that passed my gaze. I filled my basket with the items for which I’d come, but by the time I made my way to check out, a box of maple, bacon-topped donuts set me to salivating and my willpower dissolved completely…” your listener will probably want to punch you because you’re taking so stupid long to get your stupid point already.
So we’re not in the habit of showing when speaking in first person, which is how, of course, we tell other people stories about ourselves in day-to-day reactions. There’s no showing unless showing is significant – “She was angry. Like, I mean, her whole face turned this scarlet-purple color and her eyes were bulging, you should have seen it, I know she was angry but it was such a funny angry face I couldn’t help but laugh!” So practicing is important.
Third person “showing” is really easy, I just forget to do it. The exercise works, therefore, when I narrate my own events and catch myself, thusly: “She was in extreme pain. No, wait, I can do better than that. She was bent over, not quite double, her hand wrapped around the area where stitches lined her lower stomach, face contorted in a grimace as a high-pitched whining noise escaped her. She moved slowly, feet taking tiny quarter-steps and almost more sliding than lifting, her movement and posture causing her to look like an old woman.”
What about a first person? “I was so tired, too – no wait, I can do better. In addition to the searing pain at my lower abdomen, my whole body ached from the few hours of sleep I’d managed. My slow leg movements were due to the pain, but my arms felt like they were moving jelly as I reached for the bathroom light because my strength had left me everywhere else. I flinched as the light came on, and seeing my face in the mirror, I thought, “so this is why girls wear make-up”, observing the circles around my eyes and the beauty sapped away by fatigue in paleness of cheek. I yawned as I turned away, eager to finish here so I could return to my bed.”
Don’t say, “It hurt to sit down”. Say, “I let out a shriek of surprise as I sat, not expecting the bolt of pain.” Narrate your actions and grab the really bland ones, changing them to be interesting. It takes a bit of practice to figure out what actions can be ignored in narration because by the time you fix a sentence – or even do it well the first time – you will have performed several other actions. Of course, even in a story, we don’t want to express every last, final action anyway so this is also a good exercise.
The second, harder part of this exercise is narrating someone else’s actions – but it’s not much harder. You can’t see into another person’s head like you can your own or your characters, but then many POVs do not allow the MC/reader to see into other character’s heads anyway so it’s a good practice. “I knew he loved me – no, wait. How did I know he loved me? Hrm – he gazed at me with those soft eyes, a knowing look in them that matched his gentle smile, the smile he reserved just for me, and I felt the warmth of his love calm me.” “She was cute. Hrm, of course I’d say that. She…she was tiny, her whole body just the length of my own short forearm, her head barely bigger than my fist. Her little nose was just like mine, her round chin and cheeks chubby. Her little legs were like frog legs in the way they stretched and sprang back, her long calves adding to the affect.”
So give it a try. Just take care because narrating your own actions is a very distracting activity and you won’t be able to focus on things that require astute attention. Like conversation.
(And for you deductive sleuths, yes, it is Rii…in the hospital…with a baby. Well, not anymore, but that is the source of my examples. Writing exercises are great distractions!)