Writing Prompt: Show, don’t tell

I’ve been looking at some of my old work from when I was a creative writing student and I wonder how I ever passed a class. Although I liked some of the ideas I threw around back then, there is little character development in the narrative. Characters are described in terms of hair colour and height, but are not given the life they need for us to care about what happens to them. Shame on me, my characters were dead, limp little marionettes that only moved in one direction – when the narrator said so…

The craft of writing true characters in fiction lies in giving them action and dialogue. These are the things that life is made of and as with real life must be the foundation of character. Physical appearance may facilitate insight into a character, for instance, some overly groomed might be vain or insecure. Someone tall might slouch or sit on the end of a desk to be eye to eye with someone, but a list of adjectives is by no means enough for us as readers to invest the emotional attachment required to keep going.

Try this: Write a scene using no physical characteristics to describe a character or characters. Give them movement, dialogue, reactions, but don’t tells us what they look like. How much depth do you get from what it is they say and do?

Writing Prompt: Show, don’t tell

10 thoughts on “Writing Prompt: Show, don’t tell

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  1. This is a good one. While some physical character description is always a good thing, there are very good writers who don’t actually use it at all (for example, Terry Pratchett hardly ever describes what his main characters actually look like, which I imagine is a bit irritating for whoever does his illustrations…)

  2. Hi there,

    I did benefit from doing the degree, if only to expose me to some criticism, practice, craft and inspiration. I find that some courses can be too basic, so do some research before you enroll into a course to see if the level is right for you. Classes that encourage writing, reading aloud and critique from peers will be a great help in getting feedback. You can also join a writing group or forum (try Yahoo Groups – FlashXer) where you can submit work, get feedback and read other writer’s stories. The best thing you can do, however is practice…practice…practice!


  3. I prefer a lack of physical description, unless it’s:

    – truly relevant to the story;
    – effectively building tension or action;
    – highlighting the most basic features just to give a starter for ten.

    Other than that, it bores me. I’d rather make the appearances up as I read.

    Is that selfish?

    Then again, I wouldn’t discount the approach completely. Just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean there aren’t successful authors who agonise over every last detail of a character’s appearance. They proudly write page after page, documenting the whereabouts of each eyelash, describing how their knuckles contain a maze of cracked skin (and how to crack the maze…), and referring to a nervous twitch in one leg (with a novella of a back-story in order to justify it).

  4. My characters don’t have names and might almost be bodiless if you’re counting on me to tell you what they look like. What they have is conflict and motivation. Everything I write is about how they think and what they do and how often the two are in conflict.

  5. When I write, I tend to slam down the basics of where I am going, but then I find myself reading certain parts and knowing I should go back and add the “show” part. It always takes longer, but it sure makes the writing sizzle on a whole different level. I look forward to the day when the “show” part comes out naturally on the first try.

  6. This sounds like a great exercise and it’s something I’ll have to try later when I’m working on the plot and script for the game I’m thinking of making. I’ve never really thought about doing something like this… thanks a bunch. 🙂 I have a hard time with character development sometimes… maybe this will help me.

  7. This is so true. I was a CW major and I wrote the same way. the characters were flat. I was focused on their physical appearance and the plot. But, I never focused on the character of my characters, so to speak. In those workshops, you are asked to tell more about what the characters look like, as opposed to being asked more about what they were like? But this has been the most difficult aspect of writing for me. Once I realized I needed more depth from the players, I had to learn how to show and stop telling. I so agree with this post. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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