angry man
writing a novel,  writing fiction

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me in Writing

Who likes to be told what to do? Think? Does anyone like to have everything explained to him or her?

The answer is no. An emphatic no.

As humans, we like to interpret what is happening around us or what we are seeing and then draw our own conclusions. Our own interpretation is important to us as we experience the world around us.

When it comes to writing fiction, this can be tricky.

Of course, the author is telling the story, but it’s the way in which the author tells the story that makes a difference.

Let Readers Experience the Story

Readers want to experience the story. Readers choose books to vicariously live through a character in a situation the reader would never experience in real life. Take, for example, suspense books. Most of us will never be FBI agents, but we can become one as we read a story about one who’s searching for a cyber terrorist. More than likely, we’ll never be cursed with obedience, but we can live as though we are while we read Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. We can travel back in time to experience life during the civil war in Gone With The Wind. Books allow us to live a different life, if even for a moment.

The trick in having readers suspend disbelief is to show them the story rather than tell them the story. Let them experience the story through their senses as it happens.

Show the Emotions

Instead of writing, Annie was mad, consider writing, Annie stomped across the room. She picked up a book and flung it at the wall. Her face flushed while she let out an exasperated breath. Do you see the difference? In the first example, I told you Annie was mad. In the second example, you concluded she was mad because I showed you actions that would lead you to believe she was mad.

Annie was sad vs. Annie’s eyes filled with tears while the corners of her mouth turned downward and her lips trembled. Again, the second example allows the reader to come to the conclusion that Annie is sad without the author having to explain it.

Try to show the following sentences:

  • Brittany was happy.
  • Brandon was upset.
  • Jill was tired.

Let Reader Draw His/Her Own Conclusions

The more that you can have a reader come to his or her own conclusions, the more you invite the reader to insert himself or herself into the story. Being involved in the story makes a reader invested, and invested readers continue to read your story.

You can do the same thing with any other emotion. Using actions and bits of dialogue you can show the reader how the character is feeling rather than telling the reader how that character feels.

Readers want to see themselves in the story. They envision themselves as the main character and see, hear, taste, smell, and feel what the main character does. The more you allow them to experience these things, the more they will identify with your character and your story.

Ask yourself about your character: is her heart thudding in her chest, are her cheeks hot, is his mouth dry, can he hear his heartbeat in his ears, is her lip trembling, is her throat thick, does he keep shifting his weight in his chair, is the hair on the back of his neck standing at attention, is the room spinning, or do the tips of her ears burn?

Describe Reactions

Showing how a character reacts to something allows the reader to come to his or her own conclusion about that character. No one wants to be told what to think. We all like to draw our own conclusions about the things we see and hear.

Take a few days and track your reactions to different situations. Write in a notebook or on your phone your physical reactions as well as your emotional reactions to things that happen. How do you feel when someone cuts you off in traffic? What is your body feeling like when someone hugs you? What about when you get an angry text from someone? Can a cashier at the grocery store tell you are having a hard day just by looking at you? Take some time to evaluate these different responses and see if you can use any to give your characters depth and make your reader actually feel the story.

The more you can allow the reader to interpret and then draw his own conclusions, the more effective your story will be.

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