Compare the first excerpt from my new thriller, Tell On You, with the rewrite that follows:
A HOWL ROSE IN Nikki’s chest, demanding release. How could Mr. B have denied her? She fought down the anguish, as she jogged to her car in the motel parking lot, stoking herself with anger instead, her default emotion But, she told herself, she would not just get mad.
She would get even.
A HOWL ROSE IN Nikki’s chest, demanding release, as she jogged to her car in the motel parking lot. Car keys became her weapon. She slashed at random vehicles, gouging paint, picturing Mr. B’s face. You had your chance and blew it. Nobody got away with dumping Nikki Jordan.
He’d find out.
Which do you prefer? What differences do you notice? One of my beta readers prompted the revision with her comment about the first version, show, don’t tell. (Or SDT, as she wrote, having reminded me so often.)
A staple of writing know-how, SDT means evoking feelings, moods and insights from the reader, rather than spelling them out. Evocative writing engages the reader instead of patronizing her. As you probably recognized, my first excerpt told you Nikki was angry, while the second showed it through her actions, a more dynamic way.
Showing is harder than telling. In a first draft, we might take the short-cut, but in rewrites, showing makes the story come alive. So how does a writer show? Here are a few of the approaches I’ve found helpful.
- Actions speak louder than words. What does an angry person do? What expressions and body language illustrate surprise? Depict emotions through behavior.
- Use all five senses. To evoke experiences or atmosphere, translate them into sights, sounds, smells, taste, touch.
- Employ dialogue. Convey what characters think and feel through speech, rather than description, when you want to create a sense of immediacy.
- Let characters talk to themselves. Rather than say “Harry thought it was a silly idea,” try something like: “Harry rolled his eyes. How dumb can you get?” Readers feel more engaged when they’re inside the character’s head.
Hope these suggestions help. I’d love to hear from other writers on how you approach the challenge to show, not tell.