How many times have you heard an editor or agent tell you to show more in your writing? It’s okay if you’re answer is “A lot.” This was the number one comment I received during my first writing class. Heck, I heard it in my next two or three writing classes, which got me thinking: How can I show more in my writing, and when is it appropriate to tell?
The way I see it, showing is the ability to stir emotions in your readers instead of dumps details about your character in a way that info dumps or delivers flat prose. Although this may sound simple enough, many writers struggle to “show, don’t tell,” which is why today I’d like to take a deeper look on how to show and when to tell in writing, using the master novelist Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as an example.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Read the scene below from To Kill a Mockingbird when Tom Robinson is convicted as guilty. Then, analyze how Lee’s prose focuses on Scout’s senses so that the reader can visualize and feel what Scout sees and feels, rather than be “told” what happened.
To Kill A Mockingbird (page 210-211)
What happened after that had a dreamlike quality: in a dream I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers, and Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny. I saw something only a lawyer’s child could be expected to see, could be expected to watch for, and it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty.
A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson. The foreman handed a piece of paper to Mr. Tate who handed it to the clerk who handed it to the judge…
I shut my eyes. Judge Taylor was polling the jury: “Guilty…guilty…guilty…guilty…” I peeked at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them.
Judge Taylor was saying something. His gavel was in his fist, but he wasn’t using it. Dimly, I saw Atticus pushing papers from the table into his briefcase. He snapped it shut, went to the court reporter and said something, nodded to Mr. Gilmer, and then went to Tom Robinson and whispered something to him. Atticus put his hand on Tom’s shoulder as he whispered. Atticus took his coat off the back of his chair and pulled it over his shoulder. Then he left the courtroom, but not by his usual exit. He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quietly down the middle aisle toward the south exit. I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up.
“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’…”
Three Ways Harper Lee Shows and Tells in Her Writing
This passage is a perfect example of to show and when to tell in writing. Let’s take a closer look at three ways Harper Lee does this.
1) Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors and similes are an excellent way to make the reader feel what the character feels. For instance, moments before Tom’s verdict is delivered, Scout discusses her observation of how the jury enters the room in detail: “What happened after that had a dreamlike quality: in a dream I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers, and Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny.”
In one sentence, Harper Lee uses both a metaphor and a simile to clarify the discouraging movement of the jury. With words like “a dreamlike quality” we get the sense that this movement feels, to Scout, surreal. As readers, we can relate to this quality because we all have, of course, dreamed. By adding this description, readers are pulled instantly into the melancholy tone of the scene – a somber mood that will soon encapsulate Scout and several others after Tom’s verdict is sentenced.
Likewise, Lee inserts a simile to describe how the jury moved… “like underwater swimmers,” which immediately establishes the energy as slow, if not painfully so. This agonizing pace creates a compelling visual to emphasize how Scout experiences this moment with astute intensity – a crucial moment that will forever change her life.
Using similes and metaphors to “show” how a POV character interprets the action around her are great ways to stir a compelling picture and feeling that pushes the reader to experience, instead of just read about, the scene. For instance, imagine if Lee wrote the jurors movement as “slowly” instead of “like underwater swimmers.” Do you feel like the prose falls flat, or desensitizes our impression of the intense event?
How can you watch out for telling? A good rule of thumb to remember is that adverbs tend to tell too much; they fog the reader’s ability to visualize moments with as much emotion.
Often, this ambiguous description will leave readers, aware or not, begging for more details. Their minds will peck at questions like, “How slow? Did they stumble? Drag their feet? Shuffle?”
Metaphors and similes, on the other hand, make scenes far easier to imagine. But, remember to avoid clichés (dead as a doornail, etc.) or overuse them in your writing.
2) Heightening Feeling with the Five Senses
We all have them: Sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. And because we all have them, prose that elaborates how a character’s five senses are engaged illuminates our interpretation of the scene.
For instance, Scout notices that Jem’s hands were, “white from gripping the rails,” a visual that pulls us into Scout’s perspective far better than Jem was upset. Since we are in Scout’s point of view, we can’t know for certain that Jem is upset – only Jem can. Thus, the visual of “white” and strong verb “gripping” suggests Jem is, indeed, upset.
Some other examples of sensory triggers in this passage include how Scout “shuts” her eyes…Atticus “pushed” his papers, “snapped” his briefcase, and “whispers” to many people.
Ultimately, the key to triggering the five senses is in the verb choice – not the adjective. Focus on the verb and you will find a stronger way to describe what and how your character sees, smells, touches, hears, or tastes.
With strong verb choices, descriptions directly link us with the perspective of the narrator. We feel, see, hear, etc. whatever the narrator feels, sees, and so on because the author placed us inside the character’s perspective.
If you want to learn more about how to write in a way that triggers the five senses, check out my blog here.
3) Interweaving Dialogue
Last but not least, you can use dialogue to show feelings and emotions of a character. True, Lee uses minimal dialogue during this court scene but the lines delivered, as voiced through Reverend Sykes, pack an emotional, powerful punch.
Piggybacking off Judge Taylor’s “distant” voice as described earlier in the scene, we recall the gloomy mood wrapped around Tom “guilty” verdict, but which quickly shifts from defeat to awe and respect of Atticus.
Thus, when Reverend Sykes tells Scout, ““Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’…” we the readers feel obliged to stand up, too. These lines, said out of deep respect for Atticus, a man of integrity and quiet courage, stir an emotion far deeper than any feeling can do. It’s true that sometimes actions speak louder than words; however, Reverend Syke’s quick line of instruction creates a deep impression on Scout, especially when used as a transition to her witnessing the people of color standing up for her father as he leaves the courtroom.Strong dialogue, when mastered, acts as a powerful support system for visuals.
- How can I show more in my writing?
- Why is it important for readers to experience what the character feels?
- How can I trigger the five senses in my prose?
- When is it appropriate to tell?
Now it’s your turn! Take a second look at an internal scene in your novel. Find areas where you “tell” too much and revise the prose with one of the three ways (or all three!) that will “show” the scene.
How do you show in your writing? Continue the discussion by using the #LetsTalkBook and don’t forget to share your “showing” scene in the comments below!
Abigail K. Perry is a commercial fiction writer living in Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing and film production. She received her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College, and has worked as a creative production intern in for Overbrook Entertainment and as a marketing and sales intern for Charlesbridge Publishing.
In addition to writing, Abigail plans to teach screenwriting at An Unlikely Story (the priceless local bookstore owned by Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Jeff Kinney) in Plainville, MA. This class is in development and will launch soon!
Abigail is a member of the DIY MFA street team and a loyal follower of Writer’s Digest. You can read more about her work on this website or follow her on Twitter @A_K_Perry