Angela Ackerman – Show don’t tell pt 1

Sharing characterisations & emotions without telling or info dumps


Do more with less

If you are describing appearance, also include emotional description

Learn to convey information with powerful word structure rather than writing it all out


What does ‘Show, don’t tell’ really mean?

  • It is the drop in your stomach when you jump out of an aeroplane
  • It is the crunch of your feet as you walk across leaves
  • Sound of birds
  • The chafe of cold iron against skin

Take your readers on a sensory adventure


  • Economical – cuts to the chase
  • Relays information to get readers up to speed
  • Lets us skim the boring (yet necessary) stuff


Goal: active storytelling

  • Fosters reader engagement and empathy
  • Create that sense of ‘shared experience’
  • And most of all: creates obsession


The dark side of description: the dreaded info dump

The worst offenders:

  • A character’s physical appearance
  • Describing emotions – can end up with melodrama or purple prose, and in character’s head so much
  • Setting and weather description
  • Necessary information needing to be communicated between characters
  • Backstory details


Backstory checklist

Three elements to work out if your backstory should be included:

  1. Backstory ties to current action of the scene
  2. The information is needed for readers to gain a deeper understanding of what is at stake
  3. If this information is left out, will the scene be deeply diminished

Backstory is most effective when snippets are sprinkled into the action and narrative


Flashback: going back in time to show backstory as it happens

Language is more active than an infodump usually is

Flashback to delivery backstory: handle with care

  • only use if absolutely necessary
  • Get in and get out – no flab allowed
  • Give it punch – the event should have a huge impact on the current scene and emotions at work
  • Timing is everything ; build up to reveal and create suspense


Choosing Point of View (POV)

  • 1st person – limited, story is as they experience it
  • 2nd person – reader is the character (eg choose your won adventure books)
  • 3rd person limited – similar to 1st person, but can be more than one character. Must have scene/ chapter break between different POV
  • Omniscient – narrator is the character


Deep Point Of View

Checklist for deep POV

  • Remove any filter between reader and character et saw, heard, knew, thought, believed, realised, felt
  • Be immediate and direct – use VOICE to pull readers into the character’s thoughts and observations (think judgements)
  • Ensure the reader’s experience comes from INSIDE the character
  • Don’t name emotions- Deep POV describes what the character feels or conveys emotions thought direct thoughts
  • Show the emotions as they are experienced rather than describing them – body language, sound of voice
  • Eg not ‘he broke out in a nervous sweat’, something else like ‘he could feel perspiration forming on his face’ etc


Creating narrative distance: when NOT to use deep POV

  • Intensity overload – if readers need a break
  • Genres where distant PVO is normal, or there is a large case of characters
  • When something distasteful or painful is happening
  • When the narrator wants readers to pick up on something that the character misses it
  • Move out of deep POV and create narrative distance when readers need to be made aware of something

Doesn’t have to be one more than the others – different techniques for different scenes


Describing a character’s appearance

The problems:

  • Getting caught up in the face
  • Lumps of boring description
  • Self-describing in 1st person
  • (to do it in 1st person use emotions etc to describe how they are feeling and let other details leak out. Or use another person in the room as a way of describing what you don’t look like – mirroring situation)
  • Mirror syndrome
  • (only use this in a situation where appearance is important to the story – eg checking if disguise is in place, correct etc)
  • Not knowing which details to choose (or how much)
  • List-like detail, adjective abuse, cliches and stereotypes


Helpful hints to write fresh

  • Use symbols (colours, styles, and implied meaning)
  • Actions always speak loudest
  • Build an overall image, then hone in on a discrepancy
  • (eg prim and proper outfit, but edge of a tattoo visible on edge of sleeve)
  • Use the senses – the small or texture of a character’s hair paints a sensory picture
  • Choose clear details- a little goes a long way
  • Us the observations and dialogue of another character
  • Don’t forget – do more with less

Your thoughts and stuff

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