When Just Showing Isn’t Enough

As writers, we’re told that we should “Show, Not Tell” all the time, and it’s advice that is usually quite helpful. When possible, we need to let a scene unfold before the readers, to where they get to see what happens and to experience the details just as the characters do.

But there are times when showing alone isn’t enough. For example…

18e304bf9098fa7e72c5770bb42be988 by lizdegagner

She walked into the darkened room. Step by step, her bare feet against the floor, her actions steady, she came. He sat across the room, watching her, and she knew it. She could feel it.

This could be a great scene, full of tension (and I admit, it did come out with a creepy vibe), but by itself, it’s missing something. Even if we know who “she” and “he” are, we don’t know how they feel about each other. We don’t know why she’s walking into the room, why he’s watching her, and what it means to her that he’s watching her…and knowing this will make all the difference.

Is she the mother and he’s her son, and she’s entering their living room, knowing her son has prepared a surprise birthday party and knowing that she’s not supposed to know? Is he young, to where this might be his first grand surprise and so she can’t let him know she’s aware of him?

Or are they just two friends and she’s supposed to be alone and yet he’s there, to where she has to decide if he’s wanted or unwanted, whether to challenge him by speaking out or remain silent? How we interpret this scene will change how we feel about the actions, but we won’t feel anything if we just see the actions, by themselves. It’s context that makes the scene matter and helps us relate, helps us care.

So how do you take “Show, Don’t Tell” to the next level?

  • Think about reactions. When something happens, let us know how the characters feel about that something. If it’s raining, we should know how they feel about getting their clothes wet, their hair possibly ruined. If it’s dark out, we need to know what they think about the dark—do they welcome it, able to see clearly despite the lack of light? Or do they struggle with night blindness to where dark equals lack of coordination?
  • Check the context. Frequently, if you’ve set the story up to where we know just what the characters are facing, we’ll know how they feel about things. In the example above, if we know “She” is a young woman who regularly cleans a science lab at her college and she knows a young man, someone she isn’t sure she trusts, but he shows up a lot, we’ll know exactly how to read that scene without a lot of further explanation.
  • Add reactions. Physical or mental, actually putting in hints of how the characters are reacting to things as the situation develops will signal a lot.

Consider the following, second-paragraph addition to our example:

She walked into the darkened room. Step by step, her bare feet against the floor, her actions steady, she came. He sat across the room, watching her, and she knew it. She could feel it.

She felt her lungs tighten, and she worried that he’d hear the change in her breathing. Whatever she did, she had to act normal. This was just another night, and the power had gone out. No lights meant nothing, or, at least, it didn’t mean he’d done anything. Any moment now, and he’d say something.

By adding a short paragraph of reaction and details that indicate how she feels about the situation, you help readers follow along and keep caring. It doesn’t mean you have to add a lot, or that you need these kinds of passages in every scene, but no indication of how a character reacts can make for vivid reading that still leaves us wondering why it matters…and why we, as readers, should care.

Happy Writing!


Photo by lizdegagner

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