Have you ever had a friend tell you a story that nearly put you to sleep?   “And then we went sailing, swimming, fishing and snorkeling.”  All these things are fun to do, so why did you find yourself yawning?   The answer is simple.  Your friend broke the  first rule of good story telling or writing.  “Show, don’t tell.”  Wouldn’t it be more fun to see a video of him falling off the sailboat with his clothes on?  Or  see his  surprised face  when he stepped on a baby octopus?

“Show , don’t tell” is a rule  writers use to remind them how important it is for their readers (or listeners) to actually experience the story themselves.  No one likes to be an outsider.  They want to feel that they are right in the middle of a story that is happening now.
So what are the ways we can make our stories come alive by showing rather than telling?

  1. Use dialogue —Having characters speak for themselves is  much more interesting than the narrator summarizing what they say.  For example:  try Sarah screeched, “Help!  Something slimy just grabbed  my ankle!” rather  than Sarah yelled when she got tangled in some seaweed.
  2. Use sensory language—Using all the senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch – in your descriptions will help readers experience your scenes more fully.  As he walked  between the noisy carnival  rides, Carl’s mouth began to water at the smell of buttered popcorn.
  3. Be descriptive— Being descriptive doesn’t mean simply cluttering up your writing with lots of adjectives and adverbs.   Instead try choosing strong, interesting verbs and specific nouns.  Which do you think is the most interesting description?
    • A dog was playing  ball with the boy.
    • A big, brown, hairy  dog was playing happily with a red rubber ball and the boy.
    • The golden retriever romped with the teenager, tossing a tennis ball into the air and barking.
  4. Be specific, not vague – Try to avoid fuzzy, abstract words like beautiful, old, big, or fun. Instead, try to write as if you were a camera or video recorder.  Make your words draw a picture of  the “old” woman.    The gray-haired woman bent over the top of her metal cane, her blue eyes twinkling through deep wrinkles.

The next time you write (or tell a story) keep in mind the writer’s rule of “Show, don’t tell” and try using some of these techniques to keep your reader (audience) interested – and awake.

For Practice

  1. Using all five senses,  describe one of the following:
    • a visit to the circus
    • a picnic in the park
    • an afternoon at the beach
    • a holiday meal
    • a ride in a canoe
  2. Make up some dialogue for:
    • Two girls fighting over the same dress in a store.
    • Angelo explaining to Mrs. Smith why he doesn’t have his homework.
    • Three friends planning  a hike in an unfamiliar forest.
    • Two birds trying to trick a cat and keep it away from their feeder.
  3. Write descriptions  to make these sentences more interesting and less vague.  Remember to use strong verbs and nouns.
    1. The  boy was sitting and playing a video game.
    2. The beautiful  girl came down the stairs to try on the shoe.
    3. The little boy fell down and cried.
    4. The old man lost his dog.

If any of these exercises turn into a story, think about sending us a copy of it.