Rework Your Story to Get More Show and Less Tell

There are ways to rework your stories so that you can minimize “telling” and maximize “showing.” The biggest “telling” offense is perhaps the overuse of descriptive adjectives and adverbs.

Adjectives and adverbs often tell the reader what to feel or how to interpret the story instead of evoking that feeling and interpretation. While adjectives may seem to add color and movement and insight to a scene or description, they are often simply a lazy way to write. This is especially true of descriptive adjectives adjectives like beautiful and kind and nice!

One possible solution to this problem is not especially difficult. Replace at least half of your descriptive adjectives and adverbs with settings, dialogue, and actions.

Yes, half. That’s 50%.

Here are examples of how to convert adjectives and adverbs into more effective writing:

~ into action:
…she said angrily might become…she said, picking up the mail and tearing it into shreds.

~ into setting:
We were poor might become: In the living room, the linoleum rug was ripped along the edges and black streak marks showed where the boards beneath were uneven.

~ into dialogue:
She was passive-aggressive might become: She said, “I’m not angry. I haven’t given it a second thought, you bastard.”

Whenever I present this option in a workshop, someone says, “But you tell us all the time to be more concise in our writing. In fact, you have the 10% rule that we need to eliminate that much from our text before we turn it out on the world. What gives?”

They’re just different rules. The reworking I’m suggesting here does not produce a shorter more economical text. In fact, it usually results in a longer text. Length is not its goal. More evocative writing is.

Replacing 50% of your descriptive adjectives with dialog and action produces a more impactful text.

Try it and see if you don’t like the results.

Here’s an Exercise to help get you started:
Go through a lifestory that you have already written and which you consider to be finished. Underline all the adjectives and adverbs in this story. Replace at least half of these with action, setting, and dialogue.

Doesn’t this exercise make you appreciate the need to linger, to keep your stories from premature conclusion?


About Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux began helping people to turn their memories into memoirs in 1988. Denis was named Lifewriting Professional of the Year by the Association of Personal Historians in 1996. Today, Denis is a writer, educator, teacher, autobiography co-author, memoir-writing coach, editor and publisher. He directs The Memoir Network, an international group of memoir professionals who use his method and materials to help people write lifestories. Denis also offers writing tele-classes and leads memoir writing tele-groups.
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2 Responses to Rework Your Story to Get More Show and Less Tell

  1. Sarah White says:

    Note how each “show” example is considerably longer than each “tell”. This is a choice every memoir writer struggles with, in my experience– finding the right pacing to “show” as much as possible, without the book growing much too long in the process! I try to focus the action of each chapter or essay on a scene with plenty of “show” but let “telling” control the necessary segues & leaps in time that take the reader from one scene to the next.

    I’ve been enjoying your blog, Denis!

    • Denis Ledoux says:

      Good point you make. Yes, length is a definite challenge. Of course, there is a time when telling is appropriate. If you are getting a character through a town so that s/he goes from home to a park, for instance, you can simply write “We crossed town together.” No need to mention every shop or car or tree you pass. On the other hand, if you want to portray the socio-economic feel of the community, this is a great opportunity to go into details.

      My rule of thumb for length? As long as it needs to be and not word more!

      Sarah, keep writing. I know you will, of course!

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