Showing versus Telling: 10 Resources to Help You Show, Not Tell

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Show, don’t tell. How many times have you heard that? How often do we scour our work for signs of telling to eagerly correct the problem? What exactly does it mean? Well, it’s the difference between:

Delilah felt excited.

and

Delilah’s eyes widened. She bounced on her toes. Her pounding heart thudded hard against her ribs, and her pulse was deafening in her ears as a grin spread across her lips.

I’ve gathered some external resources to help you show instead of tell. Some of these are absolute favorites of mine and I use them frequently as reference. Some also have links to purchase on Amazon.

1. The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
I love, love, love this. It’s my go-to guide when I need help conveying a character’s emotion. It includes 75 different emotions your characters might feel. The beauty of it is that humans are complex beings. We might be feeling a whole slew of different emotions at once. Each listed emotion includes what that feeling might escalate to, or what cues might show that your character is trying to suppress that feeling.

2. Emotion Amplifiers by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
This is a freebie for Kindle. It goes along with The Emotion Thesaurus and is exactly as the title suggests. It lists certain conditions that might amplify what your character is feeling, such as pain, exhaustion, dehydration.

3. Writers Helping Writers
This is Angela and Becca’s website. They also have other helpful books for fleshing out your characters, The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus. They have a lot of great resources on their site. Definitely check them out!

4. Resources on using strong verbs (The Writer’s Resource)
Strong verbs can really help your writing when trying to show instead of tell. For example, if you find yourself writing “She felt [insert noun/adjective here telling what the feeling is]”, look for stronger ways to show us how she felt. This goes along with using too many adverbs. Instead of “He wearily climbed the stairs”, try “He trudged up three flights of steps.” Strong verbs give the reader a better idea of how your character is feeling.

5. Grammar Girl : Show, Don’t Tell
This one is a quick read and will give you a better idea of telling vs. showing.

6. Scribendi: Ten Tips to Help You Avoid Telling Writing
Another good article on avoiding telling in your writing.

7. Writing Forward on Show, Don’t Tell
Another quick read, but still informative.

8. The Beginning Writer

9. The Itch of Writing: Showing and Telling: the basics
Offers some great examples on the differences between telling and evoking emotion in the reader.

10. Lynette Noni: Show, Don’t Tell!
Great cheat sheet on some common emotions!

Extrapolating Your Feelings: Writing Emotional Scenes

frost quoteA good story will make us feel. It may be happiness, grief, elation, anger, fear, sadness. We find ourselves so lost in the story, so connected to the main character, that we become a part of them. We feel their pain, their joys, and their sorrows.

As a writer, you’ll no doubt come across a scene in which your character stumbles into a life-altering event, making his world come crashing down on his head. Death or loss of a loved one. A failed quest. Being betrayed by a best friend. Or, on the complete flip side of the coin, it may be an event that completely alters his life in a positive way — a realized love, a successful quest, being reunited with a long lost friend.

But how do you actually write about an emotion powerful enough to make your readers feel it too? I like to think of it as “extrapolating” your feelings.

Emotionally charged scenes can be tough to write, especially if it’s something you’ve never really had to experience before. To some extent, though, we’ve all experienced wide ranges of emotions. We can take those experiences and apply them to those emotional scenes.

When writing these types of scenes, there are a few steps you can take.

  1. Before you even write that first word of the scene, stop. Take a few moments to really think about what kind of emotions your protagonist is feeling, depending on the situation and what type of personality they have. How do they react? What kind of reaction makes the most sense for that character? It’s important to have a deep understanding of what kind of person they are to determine what emotions they’re feeling in that situation. Make a list of those emotions.
  2. Think back to times you have felt those emotions, even if it was a completely different situation than your character’s. What was running through your mind? How did it physically make you feel? Was your heart racing? Head spinning? Nauseated? Now go back to your list and write down the physical sensations you associated with each emotion.
  3. Going back to your scene, look at how you can apply your list to your character’s situation.

For example, when I was writing a scene involving death and loss, I had to sit for quite some time (we’re talking days, here) and had to think long and hard about what emotions I have experienced. I’ve never watched someone die, nor have I lost immediate family or loved ones. What sort of things would I feel if I were watching someone die? I’ve experienced hopelessness and despair in depressive episodes. I’ve faced death in the past and feared for my own life. It took time, but I drew from what I know.

It’s not easy dredging up all those old emotions when writing the difficult scenes. But don’t forget to extrapolate your emotions when it comes to happier scenes. Apply the way you felt during good times to those scenes, too.

Crafting Sympathetic Characters

Do you ever find yourself at your computer (or notebook) when writing and feel like screaming, “UGH, I HATE THIS CHARACTER!”

Oh, really, you do? Me too! Or you have someone beta read for you and they say, “I really don’t like this character.”

And then you cry and cry and cry, then cry some more because you spent so much time fleshing out who you thought was an amazing, really likable character. Then you cry yourself to sleep and dream of ways to kill off your entire cast of characters. Oh, not that last bit? That’s just me? Oh…

But don’t worry! Not all hope is lost. There’s a difference between likable and sympathetic. Your protagonist may be the biggest asshole on the planet, but if readers care about him, they’ll keep reading. The trick is they have to care enough to want to know what happens.

Example one:

As Marcus washed the dishes in the sink, the brush’s stiff bristles scraping the soapy suds against the plate, his green pasture-colored eyes gazed longingly out the kitchen window to the far pasture. He pondered the day’s events, of all the puppies he rescued and the little one he gave to his son, remembering how brightly his eyes lit up. He thought about his perfect life, his perfect family, and his perfectly chiseled jaw.

Did you care at all about Marcus? Booooring. Did you even finish reading it? I’m all for rescuing dogs, sure, but if this was an actual story I was reading, I wouldn’t give a damn about Marcus. Obviously I’m going to extremes with this example, but you get the picture, right? Take a look at this next example:

Example two:

His day at work had been grueling and never-ending, and all Marcus longed to do was pick up his son from his ex-wife’s house — that bitch, he added mentally — so they could completely veg out on the sofa with a weekend-long Star Wars marathon. Just as Marcus had signed off on his last report of the day, his manager marched down the row of desks with another stack of papers in his hand and dropped them on Marcus’ desk. Marcus stared, his jaw slack as he watched his manager turn and walk away without another word about the extra two hours of work he had just dumped on him.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Did you care about Marcus this time around, at least a little bit? Let’s go over some things that will help make your characters more sympathetic.

  • Faults
    Characters need faults. Where’s the fun in reading about someone who’s perfect in every way? Perfect characters with perfect lives have no conflict. Conflict is an integral part of novels. In our second example, Marcus’ life isn’t perfect: divorced, shared custody of his kid, and overworked at his job. Your character’s faults don’t have to be big, either. Is your protagonist ultra shy? Rude? Anxiety-ridden? Bossy?
  • Goals, Wants, Needs
    Goals are the driving force of your plot. In every scene, your character needs to have a goal, even if it’s something as simple as wanting to go home or spend time with family. What goal, need, or want is the driving force behind your character’s actions?
  • Active in the story
    Your protagonist shouldn’t be a passive bystander in your story. The plot shouldn’t just be happening around him, with your character only reacting to what’s happening. His goal, want, or need should be strong enough to force him to take action.
  • Redeeming quality
    While it’s necessary for your character to have at least some faults, he should have at least one redeeming quality your reader can identify with. Marcus, for example, cares about his son even though not everything around him is perfect.

Remember, sympathetic does not have to equal likable. Your character could be the biggest jerk ever, but the reader should care enough about him to feel compelled to finish reading his story.

In what ways do you try to make your characters sympathetic and relatable? I’d love to hear your thoughts!