Show Readers What’s Happening

'Show' your readers the colours, smells and body language of your characters so they can draw their own meaning and thereby become a fully engaged participant in your story. 'Recent News,' a Victorian painting by Haynes King.

Give Them the Details So They Can Draw Their own Conclusions

Readers want to be active participants in the story—to draw their own conclusions, rather than simply be told what the narrator thinks. So for passages or scenes where you want full engagement, give them the specific and sensory details. Paint the scene in full colour.

One of my summer reads was Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic Victorian novel North and South. Gaskell was a master storyteller, with convincing characters and gripping plots, but the impact would have been stronger still with less telling and more showing.

Examples of How Telling Fails Writers

’If it has been Mrs Thornton’s home for some years, I can well understand her loving [it],’ said Margaret, in her clear bell-like voice.

Gaskell wants us to like Margaret, her complex protagonist. This young woman will learn to overcome snobbery as the book unfolds and meanwhile Gaskell wants us to see her charming qualities—as well as the warts she’s exposing. But she doesn’t want to give it the extra words that requires, as in this rewrite:

….., said Margaret. Her voice, though she spoke softly, had a bell-like ring that carried across the room to where Mrs. Thornton stood in conversation with…

In the above example the reader gets to hear Margaret’s voice and in so doing internalizes his or her own impression.

Here’s another passage from North and South that relies on telling:

‘Very probably,’ said Mrs. Thornton, in a short displeased manner. ‘I merely thought, that as strangers newly come to reside in a town….

Try this instead:

‘Very probably’, said Mrs. Thornton in a clipped tone. ‘I merely thought…’

The above example is short, but it doesn’t deliver a full impact. And there’s the down side to showing the reader. It usually takes more words, so save it for the crucial moments. Here’s a rewrite of the above dialogue with more details–and nearly double the words– but it fully immerses the reader in the scene:

‘Very probably,’ said Mrs. Thornton. She narrowed her eyes and glared at Margaret for a few moments before continuing.’ I merely thought…’

Take a look at a draft scene you’ve written. Are there passages where you’ve opted to tell (perhaps in an effort to keep it short) when showing would have more fully involved your reader in a crucial passage?