In my own Show Don’t Tell lessons with my writers, I often ask a question like “What would the character DO because he feels this way?” I suggest my writers replace a Telling line like “He felt mad” with a specific action that indicates the anger. That’s the simple part (the part you’ve heard a million times). But in order to express your character’s anger (or whatever feeling you’re going for), you as the writer need to know WHY the character is angry. This, however, is not as simple as it sounds.
Before you can answer “What would he do because he’s angry?” you must also answer the sub-question “What type of anger does he feel?” Think of all the different types of anger – the anger you feel when a loved one dumps you is a different anger than waiting in a long, slow line at the DMV, which is a different anger than playing a game with someone who cheats, which is a different anger than repeated failures trying to solve a math problem. This means that, before you can really Show Don’t Tell, you need to know your characters in a deep psychological way and construct all the elements of the scene around those core psychological impulses and reactions.
For this article, instead of telling you what you should do, I’m going to show you my process of transforming my bad Telling into Better Showing.
I was recently working on a scene in which two roommates, Cory and Sam, have an argument that escalates into physical violence. The roommates host a party... but Sam doesn’t like throwing parties, and Cory loves to throw them. The morning after the party, they’re cleaning up the mess. As they clean...
First Draft = No Depth
Sam and Cory state overtly what they feel. This leads to two pages of un-interrupted dialogue with horrific lines like, “I hate throwing parties!” and “I don’t care because I love hosting!” This goes back and forth with cheesy elements of escalation until Sam pulls a knife and stabs Cory.
This terrible writing lays a foundation for emotions to develop. Yet, when I shift my writer-brain to my reader-brain I see only a list of facts – either through that dreaded overt dialogue or from the even worse overt narrative.
Second Draft = Better Structure
Sam and Cory do things. In this case, they collect empty beer bottles, throw away paper plates, etc. This breaks up the pages-long dialogue. It also means that when Sam reaches to pull a knife, it’s not the only action at the end of an otherwise action-less scene. The characters are interacting with the setting, not just standing still while yakking.
Third Draft = Better Craft
I keep the characters cleaning up, but I transform their anger into subtext. Sam “slams” or “shoves” objects – strong verbs to connote his mood. Instead of Sam saying, “I hate throwing parties!” he complains about a sticky spill on the table and a stain on the carpet. Cory half-listens and rebuts with dodging lines like “Lighten up. Everyone was having fun.” The readers infer the tension through HOW the characters clean, and what’s NOT overtly stated. By the time Sam pulls the knife, the readers know quite well that his anger has been brewing long before this single party.
Fourth Draft = Better Writing
Sam and Cory clean up and speak through subtext. But now... that knife stabbing seems too extreme. If I dive into Sam's psychology, I know he is not a violent person. He’s just angry. Cory is selfish, but he’s not cruel or abusive. Thus, the violence comes from resentment bursting in a single moment, not premeditation or regression to violent habits.
In this case, a knife doesn’t work. A deliberately violent action doesn’t fit Sam’s character. Additionally, if Sam overtly states, “I’m so mad I could kill you” and then crosses the room, pulls a knife, crosses back again and stabs Cory, those few seconds indicate premeditation. That forced action “Tells” Sam’s anger because I, as the author, want the reader to see Sam be mad... but that action comes from me, NOT from Sam.
So how can I achieve the same result without losing the Sam's anger and impulsivity, but also not making him a violent person? The beer bottles. I switched Sam grabbing a knife to Sam breaking a glass bottle and stabbing Cory with the jagged edge. Sam's impulsive burst answers the question, “What would he DO because he’s angry?” while also answering the question “What kind of angry?” He’s not the cross-the-room-and-stab kind of angry. He’s the not-thinking-impulsive kind of angry.
This combines several things: his non-violent mindset + escalating conflict pushing limits + the access to beer bottles = which all results in an impulsive action that shows the depth and kind of anger. Instead of “Telling” what he feels, I can “Show” not only the images of the scene, but more thoroughly develop Sam’s psyche. This tactic combines Sam’s deep resentment with his non-violent personality, added to the short timeframe of thinking, and it all happens inside the physical setting with access to bottles and movement closer to Cory.
Any editor can point out and any writer can fix a Telling sentence by answering, “What does he DO because he feels [emotion]?” But in order to truly SHOW your character, you must also incorporate the answer to “What kind of [emotion]?” Showing requires depth. Dive deep.