Decoding 'Show, Don't Tell'

A lot of people will tell you that one of the number one rules when creating a fictional character is:

‘Show, don’t tell’.

But what does it actually mean? How are you supposed to do it?

To understand it, you have understand the mind of your reader.

Your reader will only have a connection with your character if the reader can identify with your character’s human nature.

It doesn’t matter if, technically, your character isn’t a human, or we’re not in a human realm etc - the rule still applies.

What ‘show, don’t tell’ is trying to stay is:

If you can’t portray your character’s human nature (you can only describe it), then your character is an empty slate.

So how do you create human nature in a character?

 

Body Language

Your human readers will want to read the body language of your character like they are a real person: give them something to read.

Don’t tell them what the character is doing: “feel scared, feeling sad, feeling happy” - instead, show the reader this by describing the character’s body language. The reader will pick up on the character’s emotions.

Which is more interesting?

 

  1. Clare was very scared as the demon stood over her, his grin showing his malice.

 

  1. Clare shivered as her eyes widened. She could feel her heart beating in her chest - pump, pump, pump. The demon stood over her, grinning.

In example 2, the reader isn’t once told what Clare is feeling emotionally; we read her body language - shivering, wide eyes, pumping heart - and we assume she is scared.

Exercise

Come up with any scene (if you’re struggling to, think of any scene in a movie you’ve seen)

  • Is it scary? Is it happy? Sad?

  • How do people react in these situations? Make a list.

  • Put your character into the situation and describe their body language and their reactions.

Reactions

‘Show , don’t tell’ can also tell the reader a lot about a character. Do they fight the demon or do they hide?

 

Here is where you need to bring in your fully-formed character.

Exercise

  • Compare your list of how people would react in your scene and decide: how would your character react, specifically? Remember, it is important that this stays specific to the character.

  • Add another character and choose different reactions

Write them both into the scene, never once telling us what they feel, just showing us their reactions.