Showing and Telling Part 3: Fixing Your Told Prose

Now that you know how to find your told prose and when it is okay to leave the told prose as is, you need to know how to fix the told prose that would be better if shown.

Fixing Characters’ Emotional Tells

In the first blog in this series, I helped you identify when you are telling a character’s emotions. Keep in mind, you can tell a minor character’s emotion or even the major character’s emotion when that isn’t the focus of the scene and it would ruin the pacing to get more detailed in that moment. However, most of the time, you want to show the characters’ emotions. You can do that in two ways.

In movies and real life, we can tell a character or person is feeling a certain way through their physical actions and demeanor.

So to show a character’s emotion, think about what their body might be doing to express that emotion.

These examples all come from the Emotion Thesaurus:

Acceptance

  • One’s gaze going from unfocused to focused
  • Lifting one’s head to make eye contact

Dissatisfaction

  • Grimacing and shaking the head
  • Twisting or crushing an empty water bottle to relieve frustration

Guilt

  • Averting or lowering one’s gaze
  • Repetitive swallowing

Paranoia

  • Daring eye moments; a wide-eyed look
  • Crossing the arms tightly over the chest

Smugness

  • A smirk or sneer
  • Waving a hand in dismissal

Let’s say you want to show your character accepting the news that they were fired. You could write something like this:

As his voice droned on, the air seemed to thin. I tugged at my collar and stared at the stain on my pants. Sometime after I had rubbed the stain further into my pants, he said, “I have to let you go.” I lifted my head, looked him straight in the eye, and nodded.

We all know our emotions come from our thoughts. So as writers, you can show emotions by using thoughts, preferably free indirect speech—so it flows in the narrative.

Let’s take the example of a character accepting they have lost their job. Instead of using physical action to show it, I will use the character’s thoughts.

Just say it already. Geez. I didn’t need this. Why was he prolonging it? As the air seemed to thin, I tugged at my collar and stared at the stain on my pants. This couldn’t be happening. Not now. How would we get through this? My wife—

“I have to let you go,” he said.

Had to? He had to? Bull!

I rubbed my temple. I could do this. “Okay. I understand.” I could do this. We would make it. We always did.


Removing Filter/Filler Words

Filter words (words that that unnecessarily filter the reader’s experience through the POV character) are words that tell instead of show and often can just be removed entirely or removed with a rewrite:

  • Wondered
  • Realized
  • Hoped
  • Decided
  • Knew
  • To (when used to show a character’s motivation)
  • Because (when used to show a character’s motivation)
  • Heard
  • Saw
  • Felt
  • Smelled

This, of course, is not an exhaustive list. You may consider making a list of filter and filler words you use often and searching for them in your manuscript so you can get rid of them and show instead.

Some examples of how to do this:

Phillipe realized he had forgotten his tool belt.➡️ Phillipe reached for his tool belt. Crap! How could he forget that? (using free indirect speech here)

Carly stood in front of her to prevent her from leaving. ➡️ Carly stood between Lily and the door, shaking her head. (using an action to show her motivation for standing there)

Sergio could hear the trumpet, signaling it was time. ➡️ The blast from the trumpet woke him up. It was time. (indicate the sound without stating character heard it)


Using POV Character

“Here’s the secret of show, don’t tell: You can write pretty much anything you want to as long as it’s in the character’s voice. Put a little attitude into it, and it sounds like the character, not the author.”
                —Janice Hardy, Show, Don’t Tell and Really Getting It

This secret is why free indirect speech is such an effective way to fix told prose. It is now in the character’s voice, but you don’t need to fuss with italics or thought tags.

When describing setting details, writers often add in as many details as they can, thinking they are showing, and in some ways they are, but it’s dry. So it feels told even though it’s not. So make sure to use the POV character’s word choices and what they would focus on when describing the setting.

These examples come from Show, Don’t Tell and Really Getting It.

Navy SEAL POV: The rain beat against the restaurant window like rounds from an Uzi. Bob sat at the table, back against the wall, a stack of uneaten pancakes beside him. He gripped the envelope tighter with every tick of the clock above him. New orders. Great.

Scared Girl POV: Rain covered the window and blurred the outside world. Bobbi slouched at the table, her head barely higher than the stack of pancakes beside her. The envelope lay in her lap. She didn’t want to touch it, let alone open it. She glanced at the clock and sighed. Running out of time.

 

Both are describing the rain (setting) and both have similar emotions, but the way the rain is described and the way the author shows instead of tells the emotions is based on the character’s worldview and word choices. Someone in the Navy would see rain “beating … like rounds from an Uzi.” A scared girl would see rain as “blurring the outside world.”

As mentioned in my blog on info dumps, sometimes you have to “dump” information, but you want to make sure it sounds more shown than told, and one way to do that is by putting it in the character’s voice.

I just recently watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. In each one, various spider people info dump their story, but it is in their unique voice, so it is interesting. Each character focuses on different aspects and uses a different tone.

This video shows many of them.

The first Peter Parker introduces himself by telling it like it is and bragging, with some humor sprinkled in.

The second Peter Parker is more cynical and sad and uses self-deprecating humor. He doesn’t take the bragging approach. He focuses more on the negative things that happened in his life.

Qwen Stacey is practical, a bit bitter but upbeat about it.

Miles Morales focuses on his interactions and moments with other people.


Using Sensory and Other Details

When you want to show the mood, writers often do so using the weather, but you can also do it through sensory details. Sensory details also come in handy when describing the setting.

Make sure to choose sensory and other details that are relevant and convey the mood and character’s perspective and personality.

For example, if your setting is an old scary-looking castle, you might show the fog, rustling of leaves, rotting smells, etc. Then don’t forget your character’s perspective. While it is a scary house, your character might not be afraid, so you can show their courage and excitement by showing some bright flowers to contrast everything or by focusing on some of the positive appeals to the castle: the bright paintings, the expert architecture, etc.

I wrapped my coat around me and ran toward the warmth of the car, the colorful leaves crunching under my feet.

This shows that it is fall and starting to get cold without telling it.


Using Dialogue

The moment you have dialogue, you have an action scene. Of course, you can have an action scene without dialogue, but dialogue always signals it is a scene, not summary.

So instead of telling that Aiden is responsible for his friend’s accident and that friend hasn’t forgiven him yet, you can show it through dialogue.

“Honey, you know Aiden feels terrible.”

“He should.”

“Well, think about his kids. You really want to put them through a lawsuit?”

“Did he think about my kids when he sent off that text? A text! While driving. We aren’t dumb teenagers.”


Conclusion

Telling is not always bad. But when it takes the reader out of an immersive experience or seems dry, you want to revise to show, not tell.

You can do that in a variety of ways: using physical actions or thoughts to show emotions, removing filter words, using the POV character’s voice, using sensory and other details, and using dialogue.

Subscribe

If you would like to subscribe to my blog, click the button below.

About Me

With a passion for words, collecting quotes, and reading books, I love all things writing related. I will admit to having a love-hate relationship with writing as I am constantly critical, but I feel a grand sense of accomplishment spending hours editing my own writing.

Lest you think I don’t have much of a life, I should add I also enjoy dancing, singing, acting, eating out, and spending quality time with my husband and adorable kids.

I’m pretty cool. And you may want to be my friend. But in order for that to happen, you will need to know more about me than this tiny box allows.

Intrigued?