As writers, we’re often told that good storytelling is about showing, not telling. But what does that mean when it comes to writing dialogue? The truth is dialogue can be one of the most powerful tools in your storytelling arsenal. You can create dynamic and engaging narratives by using conversations between characters to reveal their personalities, relationships, and conflicts. In this post, we’ll discuss some
dialogue tips for applying the sage advice of show, don’t tell in your writing.
When you “show” in your writing, you paint a picture for your reader, using descriptive language and sensory details to immerse them in the scene. When you “tell,” on the other hand, you’re simply summarizing events or emotions without providing much depth or detail. The key to great storytelling is finding ways to show your readers what’s happening in your story rather than simply telling them.
It’s important that each line of dialogue serves a purpose. Dialogue should move the story forward, reveal something new, or deepen character relationships. Show, don’t tell with these dialogue tips:
Use Dialogue to Create Believable Characters – To use dialogue effectively, pay attention to how people speak in real life and use that as a basis for crafting your characters’ dialogue. Think about their personality traits, background, and experiences and how these factors might influence how they speak. Vary sentence structure, use subtext, and incorporate action beats to create more dynamic dialogue.
Use Dialogue to Reveal Character Traits – Dialogue is a powerful tool for character development. Take a shy character, for instance. You could have them stumble over their words like a klutz trying to walk in high heels. Or maybe you’re aiming for a confident character – someone who speaks with the kind of authority that could convince you the sky is purple. By using dialogue to show, not tell, you can create real characters that’ll jump off the page and into your reader’s hearts.
Use Dialogue to Build Relationships – By having your characters interact, you can show how they feel about each other, whether it’s love, friendship, or hatred. For example, if you want to show that two characters are in love, you might have them speak in hushed tones and use endearing nicknames for each other. If you want to show that two characters are enemies, you might have them speak in a confrontational or aggressive manner.
Use Dialogue to Create Conflict and Tension – When characters argue or disagree, they create conflict and keep your readers engaged. For example, if you want to show characters with conflicting goals, you might have them argue about the best course of action. If you want to show that a character is in grave danger, you might have them scream for help or plead for mercy. Don’t forget that sometimes, silence can speak louder than words and can also be used to create tension.
Use Dialogue to Build Your World – Dialogue can build your world and setting. By having your characters talk about the world around them, you can show your readers what it looks, feels, and sounds like. For example, if you’re writing a story set in a post-apocalyptic world, you might have your characters talk about the scarcity of food and water or the constant threat of danger.
Show Don’t Tell Examples
Telling: The woman was angry.
Showing: The woman’s nostrils flared as she spoke, and her eyes flashed with fury.
Telling: The man was scared.
Showing: The man’s hands shook as he held the gun, and his voice trembled as he spoke.
Telling: The room was dark.
Showing: The only light came from a single candle, casting long shadows over the walls.
In each of the examples above, the author uses specific details and imagery to show the reader how the character is feeling, rather than simply stating it outright. This allows the reader to experience the character’s emotions more viscerally, and it can make the story more believable and engaging.
Here are 3 other examples of “show, don’t tell” from literature:
- In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald shows that Daisy Buchanan is a shallow and materialistic woman by describing her lavish lifestyle and her obsession with appearances.
- In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee shows that Scout Finch is a perceptive and intelligent child by describing her observations of the world around her.
- In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger shows that Holden Caulfield is a troubled and alienated teenager by describing his thoughts and feelings about the world.
Crafting effective dialogue is an essential skill for any writer who wants to create compelling stories. Using the show, don’t tell approach, you can bring your characters to life and immerse your readers in your story. Remember to use sensory details, subtext, and action beats to create dynamic dialogue that feels authentic and purposeful. With practice and revision, you can master these dialogue tips to engage your readers.