Show Vs Tell: Writing to Involve the Reader


 Copyright Judy Bagshaw - All Rights Reserved



A writing flaw that I am sometimes guilty of in my first drafts, and which I see over and over in my editing work is telling instead of showing. Think of it as the difference between describing your visit to a carnival to taking your friend with you to the carnival and sharing the experience. Why get a secondhand report when you can experience things first hand?



Instead of lecturing your reader, you want your reader to become so engaged in the story that they forget that you, the writer, exists. An easy way to do this is to involve all their senses and set fire to their emotions. You want the reader to feel what the characters are going through. Consider the following:


The lawyer had delivered the bad news and twenty-six-year old Gillian Faraday was stunned. Her father had left her nothing. She was poor.


Now consider the same moment written as a fleshed out scene:


Twenty-six-year-old Gillian Faraday sat forward and gaped at the lawyer. “Say that again?”

The man shifted uncomfortably in his seat and cleared his throat. “There’s nothing left.” He startled when she jumped to her feet and began pacing.

“How is that possible?” She clasped and unclasped her hands as she crossed and recrossed the office. “Daddy’s rich. He’s always been rich. Very rich. That means I’m rich.

There can’t be nothing because that would mean that I’m…,” she came to an abrupt stop in front of his desk and slammed her hand on the top, “…that I’m poor. I can’t be poor. I don’t know how!” She flopped back into her chair with a whimper and crossed her long shapely legs.


This is the opening of the book. Already we know that the heroine has a long hard road ahead, and we’re right there with her. We know something of her background and character, and something of her appearance. And because we’re sharing her experience, we want to see how it all pans out.


With any book it’s important to engage your readers early on. Rather than a long rambling opening narrative to set the scene, why not simply drop your characters in the middle of a dramatic moment. Respect that, if you have done your job well, your readers will glean all the information they need from your characters’ actions and responses.


Something else to be mindful of is the use of dialogue tags and adverbs. You could easily use something like this:


Philip Stark, her lawyer, looked embarrassed. “Nevertheless, it is a fact. Your father left you nothing.”


“How? How did this happen?” Gillian asked pitifully.



But using action to replace passive tags, it reads:



There was a long moment of silence and then Philip Stark, of Longrin, Willoughby, Davis and Stark, the Faraday family’s longtime law firm, cleared his throat again and continued. “Nevertheless, it is a fact. Your father has left you nothing.”


“How? How did this happen?” Gillian leaned forward, her hands clenched together.



We see her emotion in her body language. We hear his discomfort in the clearing of his throat.


It is generally considered a good rule of thumb to use “said” and “asked” as your only dialogue tags and where possible replace tags with body language to show the emotions expressed.


Granted, narrative has its place. It can add rhythmic variation to your writing. It can allow the reader a rest from emotional scenes and keep the reader from becoming exhausted. Narrative gives the writer a chance to include some necessary scene setting and description. And narrative is good for dealing with minor plot points that don’t require a full scene themselves.


The truth is that narration is easier to write than scenes, but taking the time to write rich action-filled scenes will give your reader a more fulfilling experience, and likely guarantee that they will come looking for more of your work to buy in the future.





About the Author: Judy Bagshaw has been published since 2000. Writing romance featuring full-figured heroines, her publishing credits include several novels, a collection of short stories, and short stories in multiple anthologies. She was also part of the writing team for the Ginn Reading Series, and Reaching Readers Series, used in many elementary schools. Retired from teaching, she writes full-time from her home in  Ontario , Canada. Visit Judy's website: 



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