The idea of showing the audience things about your character rather than telling your audience things about the characters is a common writing tip. But what does it actually mean? It boils down to having trust that your audience can read between the lines and infer things without having to have every little thing spelled out.
Lets start with this example from the BBC show Sherlock:
- Watson was an army doctor
- He served in Afghanistan or Iraq
- He has a psychosomatic limp
- His brother is an alcoholic
- His brother is divorcing his wife
- Watson doesn’t want to live with his brother
Sherlock is able to deduce these things about his new friend just by observing his actions and the objects that he holds in his hands. As authors, we can’t expect readers to be as vigilant as Sherlock, but we can trust them to make some basic observations about the characters.
This paragraph is an example of tell-not-show writing:
Jess was tired and she was running late. This was the fourth time this month that she had arrived in the office after 9:30am, and today her stress levels were not helped by her impending performance review.
However we can convey this same information in a more compelling way if we aim to reveal the character through her actions rather than just describing what she is thinking.
Jess burst through the revolving door of the office. She glanced quickly at her watch as she struggled to fish out her ID card without spilling her cup of coffee. In the lift up to the 14th floor, she frantically dragged her fingers through her still-wet hair – trying desperately to make herself look presentable before her performance review.
OK, so the second example is hardly great literature, but it allows the reader to infer that Jess is late and stressed about the performance review without the author having to explicitly explain it.
Here are some further examples:
|Paul hated his job||When the alarm went off on Monday morning, Paul briefly considered (as he did every morning) phoning in sick and spending the day on the sofa.|
|Stephen occasionally cheats on his partner.||As Stephen walked into the crowded bar he quickly put his wedding ring into his pocket.|
|Sandra realises she is falling head over heels in love with her colleague.||All morning when she was supposed to be completing the expense reports, she found that her eyes being pulled over to the far corner of the office where Alex sat typing up the minutes from yesterday’s meeting. Sandra struggled to suppress the smile on her lips.|
Think about show vs tell in your own writing and consider whether it might be improved. Your readers will thank you for being able to use their imagination, rather than being spoon-fed the plot.