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The Art of Showing, Not Telling

Dear Barbara,

One of the most common pieces of advice I've heard since I started writing a few months ago is to 'Show Don't Tell'. I've also heard some say this means we should write the scene like it's a movie playing out in front of us. Unfortunately, I'm not very good visualizing cinematics, nor do I understand the concept of Show Don't Tell completely. Could you shed some light on what it means and examples of how one might go about doing this?

Sincerely,

Cinematically Challenged

Dear Cinematically Challenged,

I think it's important to remember that "showing" doesn't only refer to the visual elements of a scene. It means letting the action unfold in front of the reader instead of telling it in narrative.

Like you, I find it a challenge to picture and describe visual elements. Where some authors give fascinating detail about the physical surroundings of a character, I'm very spare in what I describe. In my scenes, you're lucky to know there is a carpet, never mind the color, the texture or the wear pattern.

What I try to ensure in my scenes is that I "show" the characters actions and reactions to the events around them in a way that draws a reader into the story. For example, in MARRIAGE TERMS, my August 2006 Desire release, I wrote:

The raindrops practically sizzled against Daniel's heated skin. Amanda was the sexiest, most amazing woman alive, and it was all he could do to keep from taking her in the next five seconds.

He gulped in mouthfuls of salt air and steeled himself against the onslaught of desire.

"I've missed you," she whispered.

A steel band tightened around his chest until he thought it might explode. He cupped her face, kissing her sweet lips, absorbing her taste, reveling in her feel. "Oh, Amanda. This is so..."

"Real?"

He nodded.

Her hair was tangled with wet sand, her makeup was smeared in a rainbow, and droplets of water trickle over her cheeks.

He'd never seen a more beautiful woman, and sensation wash over him with the beat the of waves. "I remember."

"Me, too," she sighed. "I remember you were wonderful."

"I remember you were beautiful."

In my opinion, this is an example of "showing" an event. If I was to "tell" the same event, I might write something like:

After dinner, Amanda and Daniel made passionate love on a rainy, windswept beach.

It doesn't really have the same power, does it? Telling forces the reader to fill in the blanks of the character interaction. Whereas showing takes the reader along on the journey as the action unfolds. The reader still learns that Amanda and Daniel make love on a rainy, wind-swept beach. But it's in a much more interesting and compelling fashion that enriches your story.

I hope this helps. Good luck with your writing!

About Barbara Dunlop

Barbara Dunlop

Barbara Dunlop penned–well pencilled, actually–her first major work of fiction at the age of eight. It was entitled How The Giraffe Got His Long Neck and was released to rave reviews. Unfortunately, the print run of one copy hindered distribution. But the experience whet her appetite for celebrity and acclaim.

Several years after that, she began writing romantic comedy. Barbara is now an award winning and best-selling author, writing for several Harlequin and Silhouette imprints. Her work is available in ten languages and in dozens of countries around the world.