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Don’t Tell Us About Your Characters—Show Them Walking Across the Page!

Show Don’t Tell Rules!

How many times have you heard “Show your story rather than tell it!”

And, how many times have you gone right on and did a lot of telling! I know I have.

“Showing” is one technique that will always improve your writing. I admit that there is some great writing that makes a precedent for “tell,” but as a rule “show” is more effective.

Here are three “show don’t tell” ideas to improve your story—every time.

1. Your pen is your movie camera.

In a film, a director (that’s you!) doesn’t have an actor go on screen to tell the audience that someone is angry. Instead, the director shows the character in a scene where anger is in process.

In writing, this means you do not say, “Naomi was angry.” You show the action (create a movie picture) that makes it clear: picking up a dish from the drying rack, Naomi throws it across the room; it crashes against the door Henry has just walked through. You may choose to include words (dialog) (“And don’t you ever say that to me again!”) that underscore the action. But the words should not replace the action.

Your writing itself must show as much feeling as there was in life. You don’t need to tell the reader that the character was angry or scared if you depict an action that successfully shows that emotion. In fact, it takes away from the pleasure the reader has in interpreting and understanding your story when you tell too much.

2) To understand your story, the reader shouldn’t have to have any special info that is not “in the eye of the camera.”

You must challenge yourself to include everything the reader needs to know to understand what you want her/him to understand (you are the director!). “Show don’t tell” goes a step further when you realize you must also exclude anything in your story that which does not contribute to “showing” as a way of delivering info.

Showing rather than telling is fairly new to writing. In most writing prior to the twentieth century, plenty of information is conveyed by a character who tells what has happened offstage: Macbeth, for example, commits his famous murder offstage. But movies have been in our culture for one hundred years now. They have changed the way we expect to experience a story on the page as well as on the screen.

Today, we are habituated to observing actions that earlier storytellers had to describe through a narrator. Shakespeare was forced to tell not show: his stage was small and the cost and complication of making scene changes was prohibitive. Today’s movie director not only wants to, and can, portray the death of the Duncan but must do so because of the expectations of the audience. We won’t believe Duncan’s death in the same way if we are told rather than if we see it happen ourselves. The same is true of your lifestories.

3) Showing is almost always more convincing than telling.

In a film I saw recently, the hero meets a woman who seems more suitable for him than his wife. “Seems” is crucial here, since we don’t ever see the hero and his new woman in a “real life” situation. We have, however, seen how he and his wife interact destructively. The movie shows us that his wife is not right for him—the scenes in which they don’t get along make it clear.

The hero leaves his wife for the other woman and a narrator tells us they lived happily ever after. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing—here was “tell” rather than “show!” It was a big flaw in the film. As an audience member, I wanted to see how well they got along, how infatuation could turn into an enduring relationship. As written, the ending fell flat. I didn’t believe what I was told like I believed what I could see myself. Your readers will insist on the same standard.

Look at your memoir writing from the prism of “show, don’t tell.” Find opportunities to convert your stories from telling to showing by using the active components of scene building: dialog, action, and setting. Let the reader experience your stories by providing the scenes needed to understand.

Good luck writing and stay in the memoir conversation!

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2 Responses to Don’t Tell Us About Your Characters—Show Them Walking Across the Page!

  1. Joyce Fishman August 15, 2010 at 6:54 AM #

    Hi Dennis,
    I enjoyed your teleseminar on building your business, and it was tremendously helpful in helping me refine a business plan, even though my plan is a slow one due to other responsibilities. I like the idea of just publishing a small part of my memoire and bind it, so I have something to give me authenticity. I have also started to rewrite the letter to Brenda which I sent to you, filling out scenes and fleshing out more of story, especially the show not tell aspect. Thanks for all your help. I’m looking forward to the class in Sept, and I will definately benefit from the first part of memoire writing class. I would also like to register for the class Aug 17 on Character development.
    Thaks again,
    Joyce Fishman I have 2 e-mails G-mail, and

  2. PatriciaD August 27, 2010 at 4:39 PM #

    Dennis, I don’t know if you remember, but I tried to attend the seminar and couldn’t get through. I have not seen, and it’s probably me, but I haven’t seen the recording yet. Is it available or will it be available soon? I’d REALLY like to hear what I missed.

    In addition to that I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your mini lessons or posts. Sure do wish I’d heard some of that back in the dark ages…I mean when I was in school…hahaha!! THANK YOU!!

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