Tell me yours, I’ll show you mine

“Show, don’t tell.”

On the surface, it sounds like the simplest of advice. Fiction writers hear it all the time. Don’t just tell your readers what your character is doing/is feeling/is like. Show them.

A classic example of easier said than done, though. That advice is asking a lot of you as a writer. It’s asking you to do three things: First, observe your character closely. Second, get deep in your character’s head. 

Then, write like that.

I’ve completed a lot of fiction editing this year, so I’ve come across both writing that does it well and some that does it not so well. 

Volumes have been written on the topic and you’ll find some links at the end of this post. In the meantime, here’s a short and simple example, intentionally exaggerated, that might get you thinking. Feel free to use it as a writing exercise.

All you need to know: Megan had gotten some bad news about a friend the night before.

Tell it to me:

Megan woke up feeling sad and sick, too, after drinking too much last night. She rolled off the bed then crawled to the bathroom. Next was the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

Show it to me:

Megan crawled to consciousness wondering why she was seasick. What boat was she on, why was the anchor lying on her chest, why was her face wet? 

She ran her hands through her hair and woke up enough that last night came back hard. The call from Jason, her calling him a liar, throwing the phone. Screaming, trying to catch her breath, curling up on the floor. 

The wine. More wine. All the wine.

Her phone blowing up till she turned it off. Crying some more, then falling off something and nothing. 

Now the morning and the weight of something she was trying to forget and Dear God, let me get to the bathroom. Holding onto the bed, the dresser, the door frame so she could pee and wash her face. Sip a little water.

In a moment she would find her phone and go make coffee. 

And remember that Darrin was dead.

Warned you

Friends, I apologize for subjecting you to a sample that might be submitted for the Bulwer-Lytton prize. But if it gets you thinking about how to do it better. …

Read more about showing not telling by reading this article from The Writer magazine; this article from Masterclass; and this book from editor extraordinaire Louise Harnby,  Making Sense of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’: Transform Your Fiction.

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