Lately, I have been noticing that descriptions of looks and voices tend to leave me underwhelmed in fiction, because they highlight the instances of telling vs showing. You know the ones, and you probably all have them in your manuscripts: the withering glances, the pointed glares, the exasperated grumblings, the strained, tense utterances… All of these writing descriptions add color and emotion to characters, usually in scene. Let’s look a little closer at telling vs showing in these instances.
Telling Vs Showing in Life or On The Screen
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, that means various looks and glances are the ultimate body language. And tone can wildly alter the meaning of a conversation. Have you ever said something innocent via text or email, only to have your recipient completely take it the wrong way? You may have been thinking the offending chat in a silly tone of voice, but it probably came off as snarky or passive-aggressive to the reader. That conversation usually ends in, “Ugh, it’s so hard to do nuance via text/email/IM!”
The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes to mind. Some things are simply too intricate to lend themselves well to word-based description. I’m starting to think that looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film /TV medium. As humans, we can usually “read” emotions by interpreting body language, gesture, tone, or a certain “look” your partner has. (Read more about how to describe emotion.) When you try to put this on the page, you’re taking the energy and movement out of it, which usually amounts to telling vs showing.
Don’t Take Shortcuts
Of course, the less you rely on describing looks and tone of voice — which boils down to telling in writing — the harder your job as a writer becomes. You can no longer take the usual shortcut of “she glared in his direction” to express her displeasure. You must now have her perform an action which communicates her dark mood, or she must say something in dialogue (the star of scene, after all) that clues the reader in to what’s really going on. Same with tone of voice.
“We’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said in a menacing tone.
This is a shortcut. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s still a shortcut. Why? When we’re thinking about telling vs showing, you want to put the menace in WHAT is being said, not HOW it’s being said. This is great practice when you want to achieve tighter, more economical writing. By leaning on tone description, you don’t really need to think, “Hmm, how do I convey true menace without telling everyone there’s menace?” I would then argue that your voice muscle doesn’t get built up as much as it could. (More about writing realistic dialogue.)
Trim Out Telling in Writing
Instead, if you write…
“Oh yes, tomorrow morning.” He cracked his knuckles, one by one. “We’ll see you then.”
…you mix in a little action, cut the dialogue in half with the tag to generate suspense, and you inject a little voice with the “oh yes.” The information doesn’t change, but maybe the overall mood does — and in the telling vs showing struggle, showing wins out. By using this and context clues (imagine the reader is picking up on the fact that something gnarly is about to go down tomorrow morning), you convey menace without once saying the word. You flip telling to showing, which will always tighten up your manuscript.
Awareness, Not Elimination
Avoiding all look and voice tone descriptions is an impossible task. This is such a common and accepted part of contemporary writing that most people will never break the habit. All I’m asking is that you become more aware of it. Show, don’t tell. Maybe take 10% of your look/voice descriptions and turn them into something else, something that’s a better fit for the text-based medium, and not so much a visual tool. For more tips on tightening up your character interactions, check out my post on expository dialogue.
Hire my editing services and I’ll help you trim out instances of telling vs showing.