Principle #4 – The Power of Storytelling
Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the Glint of light on broken glass.
Hi, I’m Diana. And this is Story Artist.
This is a quote from Anton Chekhov, and it has been valid from the beginning of times for every writer. Now it’s especially popular in movies and theater but in every form of writing, it’s still valid to create a believable story. And in order to create a believable story, we will talk about the principle number four, which is show don’t tell.
This principle is so powerful yet so difficult to grasp, especially for beginning authors. I see it all the time when I work with authors on screenplays. And actually writing screenplays and writing stage plays is an amazing tool to try and work on this principle: Show, don’t tell. Because writing stage plays, you can only write down what you can see with your eyes. So you can’t write down thoughts or feelings. And, um, if you’re not sure what this principle means or if you just want to clarify it right now, let’s look at some examples.
Rather than telling that your character’s angry, you could show it by describing that his face is flushing or his throat is tightening, that his voice is rising, and that he’s slamming his fist on the table.
Here’s another example:
Telling: It was late fall.
Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet.
Telling: When they embraced, she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.
Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her and he was shivering.
Why is this technique so powerful? Because by showing rather than telling, we make the reader create a mental image in his head, his mind. We create those mental images in his head. Actually, the reader’s mind is our canvas as the author, especially with written content. So by showing we make them create, imagine this image in their heads.
And also, doing is more powerful than telling. We believe actions more than we believe woods. You know the phrase: actions speak louder than words. For example, what would you believe more? The phrase “I love you”, or an actual selfless loving deed? Of course, we believe the deed more than we believe the words. And this is why showing rather than telling is so much more powerful.
So how can you master this technique?
This is actually something I tell my playwrights students all the time, and that I learned also from James Patterson and his masterclass, which is: you have to have a movie projector in your head. Basically, you have to be able to imagine this image and your head, you have to be able to write only what you can see. If you write a stage play, you can only write things that are visible for the spectator. You cannot write: he felt sad or he felt happy or whatever internal thing there is. Or things like: he came back from a doctor’s exam. How would you know that if he just enters the stage? You don’t know. You have to either tell it in dialogue or you have to, show it in something. You know, like him having a bandage or something.
And this is the point of it. You can only write what you see. You can only read something that you see in your inner internal movie projector. And this is the key to that.
And with this, we allow the reader to judge for himself. He can see the cues that we’re giving him and interpret from it for himself. And this way we’re not imposing judgment on them.
But how exactly you can use this technique in detail? We will see in the next three points.
#1 Use strong verbs.
Try to use action verbs and specified verbs, verbs like act, say, go, walk, nudge, and so on. Try to get rid of sensory verbs like: felt, smelled, thought and so on. You see what I mean?
Action verbs actually create a sense of movement. They create a sense of something being acted on, something of being actually done. In directing, we learned to work with action verbs when we try to give stage directions, which means an action verb or strong verb, something that an actor can do to another actor. So, attack, nudge, kick. Even judge, although judge is kind of still a sensory verb, but something that can be actually done.
And this is really crucial. Try to, when you go through a piece of the written word, get rid of those sensory verbs and instead replace them with something that goes into action, into strength. And also try to use more specific words. Walk, talk, go, those are really general words and it’s fine if you use them, but try not to use them all the time and see if you can replace them with something that is more specific to indicate actually what has been done. Is it more positive, more negative, and so on.
#2 Get rid of adjectives and adverbs (especially those that describe feelings)
Happy, angry, sad, excited, frustrated, and so on.
In this book On Writing, Stephen King says: “With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly.”
But let’s also take another example: Dana walked slowly along the street. This is telling because slowly is this adverb. But what you can do instead is show that Dana walked along the street smelling the flowers, stopping to look at the sky and enjoy the view. And this way, you know that she walked slowly, but you’ve shown her walking slowly and not given, the reader the judgment already that she walked slowly without describing it this way. The reader can find it out for himself that she walked slowly.
#3 Focus on action, reaction and body language.
For example, don’t say she’s a bad woman. Instead, show her kicking a small dog. This way, the reader will immediately understand and be convinced that she’s, in truth, a bad person. So allow the reader to make the judgment for himself.
Focus or see it as stage directions – something that somebody can do to another person. Something that can be shown. And trust the reader to interpret themselves the meaning of this thing that you want to show. Trust the reader to put two and two together himself and don’t overexplain the things that you show.
Instead, try to show them as if it was on stage, and so if you had this movie projector in your head.
Now, let’s look at how you can apply this technique for nonfiction and especially marketing.
If you want to sell a product, if you want to sell a book or you want the reader to take action, whatever action it is, you have to show them the results of this product. Not tell them. For example, don’t tell them how awesome this book is, or how awesome your courses are, and instead show them by showing them actual stats, actual results, and the most powerful technique of all: showing them the reviews.
So why are reviews so amazing? You know it, I know it, whenever we go to look at something to buy a book or do whatever, we heavily rely on the reviews. And actually the more reviews you have, the better. So try to collect reviews, try to collect positive reviews, honest, positive reviews. Do whatever you can to have reviews. Because honestly, how much more, how much stronger is it if you show actual reviews, have actual readers tell how amazing this book was, instead of you telling how the readers loved your book? Everybody can say that, but the actual reviews, the actual showing of the results of your product, your book is the power of the product and the book, and this technique of showing, not telling.
If you are the hero of the story, then show the readers how it has changed your life with actual results. Like if you are trying to sell something where you can get fitter or run a marathon on or whatever, show them actual stats, how you improved, what has happened, how quickly you managed to run the marathon and so on.
If you’re writing a book, don’t tell them about your research or about the product. The process of writing is that show them, take pictures, make videos of your research, your travel, your writing. Show them how you do your process. Include the readers by showing them and let them interpret for themselves what the process is like. And be part of it by seeing it.
Thank you for listening. I hope it was helpful and always remember if you want the reader to buy your story and to believe every single word you write, you have to do it by showing and not telling.