Show Don’t Tell: How to Write Action, Sense, and Behavior

by The Urban Writers

A good story engages the reader in such a way that they seem to forget that they are reading a book. They’re transported into the world of the book. They feel the depth of the characters’ experiences as if they are present in the moments they’ve read. It can be challenging to do this without knowledge of writing techniques. That is why writers use different techniques and devices to bring life to their story, develop the characters and pique the interest of the reader. The objective is to take the reader on a journey and illustrate the characters’ experiences in a way that immerses them in the story. One of the best narrative devices to employ is the “show, don’t tell” technique.

Show, Don’t Tell

The “show, don’t tell” technique is so widely used to depict the characters’ experiences in a nuanced manner. Telling the story is a more direct approach. For instance, saying: “Liza felt upset when she realised that Tia was leaving” tells the reader what the character is feeling whereas showing portrays the actions and behaviors of the characters. This technique nudges the reader into thinking about what Liza may be feeling as she visits her friend Tia by saying: “Liza entered the studio flat as Tia’s echoed from the bedroom. She pauses at the sight of an orange luggage bag standing in the foyer beneath a small travel bag on the kitchen counter. Liza walked up to it and glanced at the plane ticket beside the bag. She held it up to the light and frowned as the destination came into view.”

This technique may seem wordy, but it puts the reader in the room. Showing Liza’s experience acknowledges her emotions and allows the reader to empathize with her. So how should a writer show the character’s journey through this writing technique? These are some of the methods to expand the story with the “show, don’t tell” technique.

Writing an engaging story

Action

Action drives the story. Telling the reader what the character is thinking or feeling lacks a visual element. By showing the action of the character, you’re suggesting what they might be thinking or feeling instead of stating it. This is key to writing good fiction because showing the action creates a visual scene that the reader can imagine and it makes the character active, bringing them to life. The reader has to surmise what is happening by piecing these visual clues together. Although it may seem counter productive to make the reader do this, it immerses the reader in the story and allows them to engage the character depicted.

  • Depict the action of the character to replace a note on what happens in the scene
  • Provide greater detail if the scene is important
  • Keep the scene active with the action

Behavior

Much like action, behavior is visual, but it is very subtle. It gives the reader insight into what the character is feeling. A pause can indicate doubt, a huff can imply annoyance, and a sigh can show relief. Behavior brings us closer to the character, as it is a glimpse into their psyche. It can also be used as subtle cues to show aspects of certain characters before revealing a big twist in their development and, depending on their actions after the reveal, it could affect the plot. If the reader picks up on this beforehand, a big reveal or the plot twist has more impact and keeps the reader engaged with the story, as there may be behavioral nuances to uncover. Body language is a great indicator of what someone may be thinking or feeling. It would be helpful to read up on body language and how to analyze general mannerisms and behaviors to apply the information from your research to your characters. You’re putting faith in the reader to be able to analyze the characters through their behavioral patterns.

  • Develop your character beforehand. Take note of how they would react to different situations
  • Write the expression and gestures of the character to depict emotion
  • Use subtle behaviors to express what the character is thinking

Senses

One of the most effective ways to show the story is to engage the reader’s senses. What is the character seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, or tasting? Let’s say that the main character, Liza, has sat down and ordered breakfast at a café she likes to visit in the morning. Instead of saying “Liza ate a croissant at a café.” You could write: “Her croissant arrived with a tiny cup of espresso. The butter melted over crispy layers as the scent of the Brazilian blend drifted towards her on a light morning breeze. She sliced the pastry with a familiar crunch, before taking a bite and tasting butter on butter as only one could with a good croissant.” A combination of senses is used: the crisp and crunch are what she hears, the scent of the espresso engages the readers’ sense of smell, she can see the steam rising from the pastry. Liza picks up a gold knife and takes a bite, engaging in the sense of touch, and tasting the buttery goodness of the croissant.

The latter version of this scene shows the reader how the character is experiencing the scene through her senses. The first depiction may create a simple scene where Liza is sitting outside a café eating a croissant, but the second depiction details the moment. The scene is closer, the reader can see what’s on the table, hear the crunch of the top layer as she cuts into the croissant. This method illuminates intimate moments and gives the reader a sensory experience.

  • Use the senses to relate to the character’s experiences
  • Don’t get stuck in one sense, use all: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste
  • Get creative with the way you describe things in these scenes

Develop Plot Points

Imperatives

Writers should always focus on identifying and portraying the imperative plot points of the story. What are the wants and needs of the characters? Where does the conflict arise? How are the characters challenged? How do they overcome these challenges? How is the conflict resolved? How do the effects of the conflict drive the story forward?

These plot points should be portrayed using the “show, don’t tell” technique. The reader will develop a sense of what is important to the story and start to pay more attention to those parts of the narrative. The challenging thing about “show, don’t tell” is figuring out where to expend all this writing. Why write such a long scene about Liza eating a croissant? Liza is a chef and she is opening her first restaurant. The croissant scene shows how important food is in her life and in her story. U,

  • Write notes on your plot before writing your story
  • Highlight the most important plot points
  • Apply the “show, don’t tell” writing technique to these scenes in great detail

Detail

One of the key elements of the “show, don’t tell” technique is the detail. For the narrative to be visual, it needs to be engaging. Another important reason for using detail in any scene is that it guides the reader. The first scene shows the reader that Tia is traveling somewhere through the detailed description of the luggage in the foyer, the travel bag, and the ticket on the counter. Liza has a particular reaction to seeing this. She frowns and reads the ticket. Her frown indicates that she is displeased with the realization that her friend is leaving so suddenly and the fact that she went to the counter, picked up the plane ticket, and read it shows us that she was unaware of this until she saw the luggage. The detail in her behavior showed us what she was thinking and feeling. She paused at the sight of the luggage she was processing. She frowned at the ticket because she was upset at the sudden realization. The sunlight illuminated the ticket, possibly showing us the weather or time of day, a possible tone that affected the mood of the character. Being descriptive is necessary for this technique, but not every sentence is going to make the cut.

  • Be detailed in your first draft and then remove unnecessary parts during the editing process
  • Try to use detail to express something specific
  • Use detail to highlight thoughts, feelings, important moments, foreshadowing, establishing the environment or character development

Advance the Story

Writing a good story and engaging the reader can be challenging. “Show, don’t tell” is a useful technique to implement action, behavior, the senses, imperative plot points, and detailed writing to advance the story. When you begin to understand how to advance your plot, develop your characters’ experiences and illustrate the world they live in, it becomes easier.
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