More than words

From word one, writers are told, “show don’t tell”. It’s a method of letting the reader see and feel the character’s emotions, their wants, their needs. It’s not an easy bit of craft to master since “telling” is so much faster – and easier – than showing. To ‘show’ means to get into the character’s skin. To feel what they feel and describe it in a way that will, hopefully, elicit that same feeling in the reader.

Show don’t tell. It makes sense in fiction but what about reality?

Sure, few of us would refuse flowers and candy on Valentine’s Day. And I doubt any of us would object to a gift and gushy card on our birthday. But… isn’t that a form of telling? Wouldn’t you rather wake on a morning other than Valentine’s Day or your birthday and find the laundry washed, dried and folded? Or the empty milk container rinsed, recycled and replaced by a full container with a fair expiration date?

When you think back on special moments, consider this… are they special because of what someone said to you or because of what someone did to you, with you, or for you… without being asked? It’s not that we shouldn’t say I love you, or I need you, or any other endearment, but that we should say them and show them, now, while we can, so that later, if events take away the opportunity to show those we love how much we love, they will already know.

I thought of this today as I drove my daughter to her volunteer position at a living history museum. I blasted the radio as I drove home alone, singing along with some classic songs. Then one came on that I’ve heard many times but didn’t ‘get’ until today. As a writer, I’ve learned a lot from songs – especially how to break a story down to its core. I’ve admired the way songwriters can tell an entire, passionate story of love and heartbreak in three minutes or less. Today, however, I learned something else… that showing the feelings of a character, or a real live person, takes much more than words.

21 Responses to More than words

  • It’s true the moments that have meant the most to me is when some one remembered something or did something then bought me something. Thanks for the post.

  • What a great point – songs really do get to the core of an issue. I will have to pay attention more to music. I know so many writers who have playlists for their characters to get them in the right mood.

    • I did a post here not long ago with some music for my WIP. I even bought a new journal and fragrance to help ‘set the mood’. It’s amazing how much we’ll do for a story and how little we’ll (sometimes) do for real people. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Love that song, Debbie. I just created a playlist for each of my books and it really revealed the characters in a new way. I struggle with ‘showing’ in my writing as well. I’m hoping that getting deeper into my characters heads through music will help.

    • I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as I listened to this song. I’d heard it so many times but didn’t make the ‘show don’t tell’ connection until today. Funny how that happens, yes? That just may be how showing in your writing happens for you – all of a sudden and when you least expect it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • So true – showing takes a lot more time (or words, in a story) but it gets the point across so much better!

  • This is one of my favorite songs in the whole wide world. I’m so glad you had it ready to listen to.

    You make a great point. Showing is the hardest part of craft. I think that’s because it’s the hardest thing to do. We’re so wrapped up in our selves that we forget to think about what someone else might like. At least I am. ::grins::

    Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.

    • Thatโ€™s an excellent point, Catie. We think more about ourselves and our own needs than about the needs of others. Thatโ€™s why we often โ€˜tellโ€™ instead of โ€˜showโ€™. Maybe weโ€™re just too busy. Life is so fast-paced these days. I think if we slow down a little, the rest just might come naturally.

  • Okay, all of you, it seems that everyone knows about this song and who is singing it – but me! I about fell off the couch listening to it – it is soooo beautiful. Someone PLEASE tell me who these two fantastic looking and singing dudes are! I gotta get this song on my iPhone!

    • I’m stunned you never heard this song, Patty! It is beautiful and reached #1 back in the early ’90’s. The four member group was called, “Extreme” and I believe this was their biggest hit. You might be surprised to find out the two singing in this video are not related. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’d originally thought they were brothers.

      You can find more about them here:

  • I think the showing is so hard (at least for me) because we have to let ourselves feel and be vulnerable and experience the emotions of our characters in order to get them on the page. And I definitely agree with you about those every day things that make the difference. BTW..I love that song!

    • That’s what it is indeed. We not only have to think beyond ourselves, but we have to open our hearts. It’s a scary place but the results are so worth it. You get out of it what you put in. But, those who love us will return the gesture after they realize we’re not just giving to get. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • This is a beautiful song and a great reminder of the power of our actions.But I wanted to reiterate what you said about music. I think songs and music are a great way to find emotional depth and even story ideas. Country and western–while not my favorite music–contains such wonderful story nuggets.

    • You’re so right, Linda. The angst, redemption, soaring adoration and more that we hear in songs grips us in such a short span. The chorus is like the thread in our stories, the beat like the rhythm of our words. Not only can we tap into the nuggets songs offer us but we can also dissect them to see craft a lot easier than we can dissect a novel. And music motivates. The right playlist for a story can set the muse free.

  • I love this song. Every time I hear it (which isn’t often) I turn it up and sing it loud!
    Thanks for a great post. I have often tried to figure out what the hell “show don’t tell” means. And when I think I am showing.. I’m apparently just yammering. Ha.
    I took a creative writing class ten years ago and learned a little about showing and not telling.
    I think when I write tonight for my goal count, I will practice showing.
    Thanks again!

    • Show don’t tell, like deep POV is not an easy craft tool to master.

      I read a craft book a while ago – can’t recall the name right now – where the author said to close your eyes and picture yourself as the character as the character goes through a specific scene. Really focus on the the senses here. Look around, see what your character sees, hear what s/he hears, smell the air, etc.

      Now focus on your own body’s reaction to this scene. Are your palms sweaty? Is your heart racing? Is it lumbering along instead? What is happening to you as you feel, hear, see, smell, touch and taste all that your character does in that scene? Write it down. That’s showing not telling.

      It takes a lot more words than just writing, “He was scared.” but it’s so worth it because it paints a picture in your reader’s mind, giving them a sense of being right there beside – or as – the character.

  • Showing is tough, but mix it with deep emotion, and it flows.
    It’s the feelings wee share in the action and words that make them memorable. We write to the heart and there it will live.
    Great post!

    • Exactly. It’s the feelings we share that make it memorable. Readers want to connect with characters and showing vs. telling helps them do just that.

      I love what you said here, Sandy. So beautiful. “Write to the heart and there it will live.” Perfect.

  • This is one of my absolutely, favorite songs in the whole wide world!! You’re correct about showing more than telling. When I finally got it, a lightbulb went off in my head ๐Ÿ™‚

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