If there’s one piece of universal writing advice it’s this: “Show, Don’t Tell”.
But what does that really mean — and how is it done?
Let’s being with a definition. “Telling” uses abstract, general terms (The dog was big and scary.) “Showing” uses specific nouns and verbs and pulls from the five senses so the reader will get exactly the meaning the author intends. (Eva felt the dog’s breath on her cheek as she passed by the chain link fence, and smelled the musty odor from his matted fur. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him keep pace with her slow, deliberate steps. But when a low growl rose from the dog’s throat, Eva ran.)
Showing often uses more words than telling, but it also gives the reader more information. In the second example, we see how Eva interacts with the dog. We see the dog as she sees him, and we know exactly what “scary” means. And since showing incorporates more into the text than simple description, you get a lot of mileage from every word.
The way a character reacts to his circumstances or moves through his day shows us a lot about who he is. If your character chooses to miss a movie in order to help his sister with her homework, you’ve shown he’s generous. If she adopts a stray kitten, she’s an animal lover. Don’t sum up your characters with adjectives (Sam is a good big brother; Kayla has a kind heart). Let their actions speak for themselves.
Many authors over-describe their characters’ physical appearances. Highlight one or two traits that make them stand out. Try to work the description into the action or dialogue (“Now your hair’s purple,” Julie exclaimed. “When did you make the switch from blue?”) Secondary characters should be seen through your protagonist’s eyes. Touch on what your protagonist notices about other people rather than listing all their attributes. By showing character, you’ll also be showing plot. The situations your characters put themselves in, and what they do once they’re there, create the backbone of your plot structure. Tension and drama are created by your readers seeing what the characters are doing and placing their own value judgments on the characters’ choices.
Ideally, the setting is revealed as your protagonist moves through it. While glancing out her bedroom window Jane may see a river flowing in the distance, and recall the previous summer when the water dried up. Alex may admire a neighbor’s new car; the make and model giving the reader a clue as to what year the story takes place. If the story happens in your character’s everyday world, then the details of ordinary life (clothing, housing, food, transportation) won’t be considered exceptional. A 13-year-old girl growing up on a farm in the 1920s wouldn’t think it disgusting to pluck a freshly-killed chicken for dinner – she’d just do it. However, if a character is plunked down in an unfamiliar setting, rather than describe every detail you need to zero in on the aspects of that setting that stand out for your protagonist.
The single best way to show – without adding extra words – is to pay attention to your verbs. Specific verbs not only convey action, they can also convey emotion, state of mind, and physicality. After school, Jake went to the store only tells us what Jake did. But if you also want to show how Jake did it, change the verb: Jake dashed to the store; Jake trudged to the store; Jake marched to the store; Jake stumbled to the store. Each verb gives different clues about how Jake feels about his trip to the store, and helps us visualize the way he’s moving. That’s a lot of showing packed into one word.