So, You Want to be a Better Writer? 5 Quick Tips to Help You Show, Not Tell.

Originally appeared on the Burning Soul Press Blog 4.4.22

Everyone thinks they can write a book. How hard can it be, right? You sit down, you plot out a story, break it down chapter by chapter, and then start typing – and eventually you have yourself a book.

Well sure, that’s one approach!

But let me tell you – it takes skill and discipline to author a book. And if you want to be successful, you simply must adhere to one of the most basic fundamentals of writing.

Show, Don’t Tell.

Learning how to show, not tell is one of the most difficult skills to master. But if you want to become a good writer, you absolutely have to do it. It’s what gives readers the emotional attachment to your characters – and ultimately, it’s how they forge true long-lasting relationships with your work. But what is it exactly?

Show, don’t tell, places an emphasis on using showing actions in order to portray the emotions you want your readers to feel (which creates a better experience), rather than the exposition of telling them what happened.

In a nutshell, mastering the show, don’t tell rule in your writing will allow you to connect with your reader in a deeper, more meaningful way by cultivating empathy. Show, don’t tell, allows your reader to feel invested in the outcome of your story – which is exactly what you want as an author!

But let me back up for a second here before I get too far ahead of myself. My name is Julie Navickas and I’m the Impact Manager with Burning Soul Press. I’m also a contemporary romance novelist, which means I’ve painstakingly slugged through the experience of learning to show, not tell. And I’m here to share with you 5 quick tips to master this skill:

1.) Focus on the 5 senses, but ditch the sensory words. If you find yourself writing “I heard”, “I felt”, “I smelled”, etc. – you’re telling, not showing. And you’re taking the reader further away from the experience. Rather than using sensory words, describe the feeling that comes from the sense. For example, instead of saying “I felt cold”, challenge yourself to put into words what cold feels like. “Shivers erupted along my spine, sending goosebumps to parade across my skin.”

2.) Lean into the emotions, but don’t use emotion words. Just as I described above, you want to learn to describe emotions without using emotion-driven words. Think about it for a moment. If you say, “I was so scared!” you’re telling the reader, not allowing them to feel the emotion itself. Again, focus on what scared feels like. Is it your heart beating wildly beneath your ribcage? Is it the cold sheen of sweat that glistens on your forehead? Maybe it’s the chill that tickles your skin?

3.) Identify trigger words. Attune yourself to be on the lookout for words that will inevitably lead you down the tell, not show path. For example, here are a few to be on the lookout for: realized, felt, and was (more on the word “was” below!). Every time these words find their way into your manuscript, you’re guaranteeing yourself that you’ll violate the show, don’t tell rule. Find your delete key and have another go at it.  

4.) Spot the correlation between passive writing and show, don’t tell. As noted above, the word “was”, is simply dismal for many reasons. Passive words take the reader out of the story. For example, if I wrote “she was standing by the bed,” my advice would be to challenge the tense. Rewrite the sentence to read, “she stood by the bed.” It’s active – it’s less words – and it allows the reader to be in the moment instead of reliving it. Active writing is better writing.

5.) Know the power of non-verbal communication. 55% of the meaning in any message is generated by the face and body. Another 38% is derived from the way a message is delivered (tone, volume, etc.). Which means only 7% of a message… is dialogue. Nonverbal communication is powerful – and as an author, you need to use this to your advantage. Don’t overexplain – allow your reader to make the connections on their own. If your character leans in, blushes, and toys with her hair, she’s probably attracted to the person she’s speaking with. Let your reader infer. Show what your character feels – don’t tell your reader outright.

As I noted above, show, don’t tell is one of the hardest skillsets to master as an author. But given the right tools and practice, you can indeed improve your writing and storytelling abilities. Good luck!

Published by julienavickas

Julie Navickas is a nationally recognized contemporary romance novelist with Inkspell Publishing, known for her keen ability to weave heart-wrenching, second-chance love stories through relatable characters with humility, humor, and heroism. She is also an award-winning instructor and academic advisor in the School of Communication at Illinois State University, the public relations manager for Burning Soul Press, the social media strategist for Labyrinth Made Goods, and is a continuing education instructor with Heartland Community College. Julie is a mom to three children: Lily (5); Colton (4); Brady (2), and has been married to her high school sweetheart, Thomas, for ten years.

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