Please, Don’t Tell It – Show Me.

When describing a moment where the person of interest (the one whose POV is the focus of the chapter) is doing or feeling something, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being too darn blunt:

Imran was frightened. He ran out of the room.

Some will say: ‘Well, that’s put simply and I get it.’

But do you really get it?

Can you empathise with the character. In two seconds we have gone from Imran being frightened to leaving the room. How frightened was he to make that snap decision to leave? We got to the point, fantastic, but was the reader drawn into the world?

I – don’t – think – so.

All we did was TELL the reader.

In a movie scene (unless there is a narrator), we have to go by the actions on screen. We aren’t told that Imran is frightened, but we can see it on his face or his subtle mannerisms.

Tell Version:              Imran was frightened. He ran out of the room.

Show Version:          Imran’s breathing was less controlled. The room, appeared small, almost caving in around him. He stumbled backward giving the wall the lightest touch with trembling fingers. He gulped at the cobweb that dangled from the ceiling; no spiders lurked, or not ones that he could see.  Goose bumps tore down his arms. Imran couldn’t take any more. He didn’t have to be in this room. Without second thought he darted for the door. Everything wobbled into a blur before he fell onto the creaking floorboards. Gasping for breath, head clutched, he glimpsed into the room.

My version can no doubt be bettered by others, but I hope it opens up the original sentence into a cauldron of emotions.

By stating his breathing, his fear of spiders, and the pitiful state he conveys by clutching his head, we’ve expanded the word ‘frightened’. In fact, the word ‘frightened’ is not present anymore.

Of course, Imran clutching his head could mean a number of things;

  • He feels pitiful
  • He is upset that fear took the better of him
  • He is feeling faint
  • He is nauseous
  • He has to overcome the fear no matter what.

If ever Imran needs to return to that room once again, the reader will have a sense of ‘ooh’ over what may unfold…

Telling is not forbidden. It can be used, but if you see an opportunity to make the reader see the sweat rather than state it, go for it.