"Show, Don't Tell" Shown: How Not to Report Your Story

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Point of view, which to use? It’s one of the first questions authors answer (or have answered by their WiP) when they start a new project. The choices are simple enough: first-person (I/me), second-person (you), third-person limited (he/she/xe only), third-person omniscient (he/she/xe everyone). There are some other, less common choices, but these are the big players, as it were. I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of each. That isn’t what this post is about. If you’d like a refresher, I recommend this article from literary agent Jane Friedman. Hop on over and have a read or power through with me to…

How Not to Report Your Story

POV is often touted as the vehicle through which your story is told. Is your character narrating? Is there a third-party narrator who’s monitoring one character’s thoughts/reactions? POV does this, but the way it does this means the difference between a report and a story.

As someone who majored in psychology before going for her MFA in fiction, I can tell you transitioning from formal report-style writing to fiction can be tough. Everything I wrote my first year of grad school sounded like a case study. Copious reading and rigorous effort helped me shake my tendency to write like a textbook. Not that there’s anything wrong with textbook writing—textbooks have been making it work for decades. But when you’re diving into a fictional world that you want readers to become hopelessly addicted to, a textbook is not the style to aim for.

Showing Your Story with POV

First, let’s define a story. A story is the interesting and engaging relay of an arc to readers. Notice I didn’t use words like “consecutively” or “orderly.” There are some brilliant stories that hop around their timeline (not a method I recommend for first-time novelists, but definitely doable). While a story doesn’t have to follow the typical sequence of beats to hook readers, it does have to convey events in a voice that meets the reader in their desire for a story. Don’t write a report of your story. Show us how the story unfolds.

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like “show, don’t tell,” you’d be right (hence the post title). Prior to grad school, “show, don’t tell” always felt like abstract advice to me. How did I “show” something? How did I avoid “telling” something else?

There is plenty of nitty-gritty advice for showing, rather than telling, but the thing that really hammered this lesson home for me was seeing it done.

Below, I’ve told the same bit of a story in third-person limited, first as a report, second as a narrative. Let’s dive in.

The Report

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Image by Luke Chesser on Unsplash
My fingers shake. I struggle to grip the key to my house and unlock the door. I am nervous, and my nerves make my actions erratic. I want to believe what Ron said, but I struggle to do so. The letter from Ted I read last night says something different from Ron. Ron said Ted cheated on me with another woman. Ted says he did not. My emotions do not make sense. They are confusing and unsure. Ron wants what’s best for me. He told me so. Ted says he loves me. I love him too. I want to be near him. I want to share things with him that I share with no one else. I do not want to believe Ron’s words. I want to believe Ted’s letter. I do not know what to believe.

Analyzing the Report

“My emotions do not make sense. They are confusing and unsure.” This is a prime example of reporting or “telling.” This literally tells me what the character is feeling. Even more, it tells me that what they told me their feeling doesn’t make sense. Similarly, “I am nervous, and my nerves make my actions erratic” tells me how the character feels, as well as how that feeling affects their actions.

Backing up to my psychology/more technical background, the lines I quoted read like something out of a case study (if one my professors would have shuddered at). “Subject is nervous and displayed erratic behavior.”

Man, that brings back memories.

The purpose of a case study or experiment is to present the facts in a clear, concise manner. Stories should also do this (after all, a confusing narrative is, well, confusing), but stories should do so in a way that doesn’t remind readers of slogging through high-school or college homework.

Let’s look at this passage rewritten.

The Tale

people around a bonfire for storytime
Image by Jack Cohen on Unsplash
I fumble with the key to my house. Ted’s cheating. Ron’s words surround me in a haze of doubt. Ted’s letter said he was loyal, but if he’s telling the truth, why didn’t he say it to my face? I should just confront Ted, ask him straight-out. Only the thought of doing so makes my legs weak. What if Ron’s right? What if Ted is seeing someone else? Pain, sharp and fierce, strikes my heart. I want to be with Ted, but only if he wants to be with me. One of them is lying, but which one? And do I want to know?

Analyzing the Tale

This version gets all the same information across, but it does so while engaging the main character’s thoughts and reactions. It feels closer to the character and less formal. There’s an emotional connection here that the first version doesn’t quite make.

So, what does this do differently? It takes out the telling and tightens up the showing. Taking the opening lines for example…

“My fingers shake. I struggle to grip the key to my house and unlock the door. I am nervous, and my nerves make my actions erratic.”

Cleans up to…

“I fumble with the key to my house.”

“Fumble” tells us the character is struggling and shaking. It implies emotional unsettle that gets clarified in the following lines. The second version does in one sentence what the first version takes three to convey, and it uses relatable experiences (shaking from nerves) to show emotion. Readers feel the shaking and the struggle. They remember an event that triggered a similar reaction for them. An emotional connection is made.

Even more, there’s no “subject was observed” feel to the second version. There is the uncertainty of the character. Questions are asked. Answers are not provided. Tension grows, and tension keeps readers turning pages.

So, how can you do this in your own writing?

Here’s an exercise to try.


Step 1: Find a few sentences from your work where you list an emotion (sad, elated, angry, etc.).
In version one above, the character is “nervous.”
Step 2: Find the why of this emotion. Why is your character sad or elated? What triggering event brought on this emotional state?
Above, our character just learned their lover might be unfaithful.
Step 3: Take what your character is doing in this scene and apply the emotion to the action.
Our character struggles to open the front door. “Struggling” could mean anything from the lock needs oil to someone put a chair under the handle inside. Fumbling the keys with shaking fingers links the action to the emotion of nervousness.
Step 4: Rewrite the line(s), perhaps condensing them, to take out the emotion word and replace it with how the character acts as a result of that emotion.
“My fingers shake. I struggle to grip the key to my house and unlock the door. I am nervous, and my nerves make my actions erratic.” Becomes, “I fumble with the key to my house.”

Unsure how to get your character’s emotion across in action? Check out The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Click the image below to grab your copy from Amazon.

Cover of The emotion Thesaurus

Give these steps a try. If you’d like a bit of feedback, go ahead and drop the before and after versions in the comments. As always, don’t be shy about questions or letting me know if this was helpful/how it could have helped more. That’s what I’m here for, after all.

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