Add Comment Register

In writing workshops, we hear instructors say, “Show, don’t tell,” but what do they mean? Readers want to be involved in the action, not be told about it. You accomplish that by using dialog and active voice that creates a moving picture.

Here’s a passive description:
Sweat beaded my face. I didn’t want to be captured or killed. There was no honor in that, so I fled through the forest. I wasn’t sure where the clearing was. In the darkness, I couldn’t see the trees, which wasn’t all bad. The enemy couldn’t see me either. As I picked my way through the forest, I wasn’t sure I was going in the right direction. The gunfire was behind me, so this had to be my way of escape. The underbrush and trees made my progress difficult. In the silence, I wondered where my pursuers were. I was still in the forest when I saw a barn and a house in a clearing and wondered if it would be safe to go there.

Here’s how we might change that description into an active picture:
Sweat beaded my face and added to the sting of the cold night air. No longer was I an officer of the Confederate Army. I was a frightened rabbit who saw no honor in being captured or killed. Where was the clearing beyond the forest? I should have reached it by now. Wham. I ran straight into a tree. Dratted darkness. I couldn’t see, but not seeing was my only hope—so those in pursuit couldn’t see me. I picked myself up and ducked under the brush. Was I going the right direction? Yes, as long as I could hear gunfire behind me, this had to be my way of escape. I pushed back the branch that caught me in the belly and forged ahead. The silence scared me. Had my pursuers given up, or were they in the shadows that nipped my heels? Then I saw it through the trees—a barn and a house. But I dared not go there. That would be the first place they would look.

To pull readers into the action, don’t tell what happened. Give information that creates a picture.
1. David loved the morning. David breathed the crisp air with awe, like a peasant who stood before a king.
2. She had been transformed. Her eyes had brightened, and her frown had turned to a smile.
3. Something new grew inside of him. To others, his correct answer meant nothing, but to him it was the winning touchdown after time had expired. (What grew? An alien, perhaps? If the author doesn’t say, the reader can’t imagine. Writers don’t say, because they don’t know how to describe a feeling. That’s where the use of metaphor becomes crucial. Since the author doesn’t say, we have no idea, so we’re assuming that what grew was his confidence.)