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What does it Mean to “Show Not Tell?”

A familiar axiom of writing is “show, don’t tell”. We hear it everywhere: from teachers, in articles, in writing workshops. For a long time, I had no idea what it actually meant. What do you mean, don’t tell? Aren’t we storytellers? My natural inclination was to sit down and tell what happened; hovering above my characters like a omniscient narrator explaining exactly how they felt and why they felt it. After all, how would the reader know if I didn’t tell her? Many terrible drafts later, I have come to learn a little bit about point of view, the embodied experience, and how to let the reader feel what is happening along with the character.

In the spirit of showing…

When I looked up from the keyboard, I saw him. I wished I were anywhere but a bookstore in the middle of Baltimore. I hadn’t considered that he might be the one I’d run in to. I was so nervous that my hand shook when I picked up my coffee cup. Swallowing the cold remains in one sip, I finished the stale tasting liquid.

“Jeff.” Calling, as I might to any old friend.

He stopped, looking surprised, as he walked over to the table.

I stood up and before I knew what was happening, he swept me into his arms. He still smelled the same and I thought about the last time I had seen him. For a moment everything around me dissolved, and it was just the two of us, the way it used to be. He let go, and I felt wobbly.

VERSUS

When I looked up from the keyboard, I saw him. Sweat broke out on the back of my neck, and I wished I were anywhere but a bookstore in the middle of Baltimore. I hadn’t considered that he might be the one I’d run in to. My pulse raced and I reached a trembling hand to my coffee cup. Swallowing the cold remains in one sip, I recoiled at the taste of the stale liquid.

“Jeff.” Calling, as I might to any old friend.

He stopped, his eyes growing wide as he walked over to the table.

I stood up and before I knew what was happening, he swept me into his arms. At once, the familiar scent of sandalwood overwhelmed me, and I ricocheted back in time, reeling from the familiarity of his feel and his smell. For a moment everything around me dissolved, and it was just the two of us, the way it used to be. He let go, and I put a hand on the chair behind me to steady myself.

I don’t worry so much about this in my first drafts—it would be too crippling. It’s in revision that I keep a keen eye out for those passages where I’ve bogged down the narrative with too much explaining. Emotions words jump out at me, and I work hard to show someone’s anger or fear rather than just naming it. There are other places where showing is superior—listing a characters quirks or talents for instance. If I can show how my hero eludes a pursuer during a car chase rather than say he’s an excellent driver, the experience will be more satisfying and believable for the reader.

Take a look at one of your passages and see if there is a way to envelop your reader more viscerally into the experience. Feel free to post your own examples in the comments.

Writing a Three-Dimensional Villain

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While cooking up the storyline for The Last Mrs. Parrish, some of the most fun we had was bringing Amber Patterson, our antagonist, to life. Actors often talk about how exciting it is to play the villain — it’s also exciting to create a villain for the page. ♥

Only a few paragraphs in, it’s clear that Amber is up to no good — that her entire act is one she’s employing to get what she wants. Is she a woman who you love to hate? Yes. Is she a woman who is completely bad? No. And isn’t that what we find in life – that no one is all bad – and so the most convincing villains have a piece of good in them somewhere.

Possibly the most problematic and notorious villain in all of literature is… READ MORE