Show NOT Tell! | Characterisation in Creative Writing

Hi, everyone! I am Ms Nora and it is my pleasure to let you know that I will be sharing English tips and strategies on the Lil’ but Mighty blog from now on. In this very first post, we are going to learn how to create characters that come alive by describing people in more interesting ways. With paper 1 fast approaching, this Show Not Tell tip not only helps to develop your characters, it definitely will help to add more details to your story too.

When children (or even adults!) are told to describe someone, a typical description goes like this:

I turned around and got the rudest shock of my life. Kelly used to be so fat but now she is extremely skinny. She no longer looked like the girl I used to know. I was very worried for her.

Now compare that to:

I turned around and got the rudest shock of my life. The Kelly I knew had been reduced to mere skin and bones. Gone were her chubby cheeks and cute, round face. Instead, her face had become angular and her cheeks were sunken. Thoughts raced across my mind. Was she anorexic? What had made her become so skeletal?

What makes the second description more interesting than the first? Let’s take a closer look.

In the first description, the writer TELLS us about how Kelly used to look (‘so fat’) and how she looks now (‘extremely skinny’).

However, in the second description, she SHOWS us the difference (Kelly’s ‘chubby cheeks’ were now ‘sunken’ and her face is no longer ‘cute’ or ‘round’).

The difference between TELL and SHOW

So what is the difference between SHOWING and TELLING, and why is it better to SHOW instead of TELL?

When you SHOW, you are using words to create mental images in your readers’ minds. This is better and more powerful because when your readers get a clearer picture of what they are reading, they are more engaged in your story. Engaged readers mean they want to read your story to the end, instead of falling asleep or giving up due to sheer boredom.

How do you SHOW?

Here are some ways that you can use to enhance your characters:

1. Use specific or vivid adjectives and verbs.

This means you should stay away from words like ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘nice’ which are too simple and limiting. (It’s time to open up that trusty, dusty thesaurus!)

2. Identify the adjective (e.g. fat, skinny, clever) then add details whenever it is possible or necessary.

For readers who have been following the blog, you would have come across Mrs Chew’s post on using TAMED (Thoughts, Action, Manner, Emotions) to describe your characters in writing.

I stared at the broken vase in dismay (Emotions). Why did I have to be so careless? How was I going to explain the mess to my aunt? (Thoughts)

TAMED adds details to the characters and one other way to do so is to describe the physical appearance, as shown below.

I turned around and got the rudest shock of my life. The Kelly I knew had been reduced to mere skin and bones. Gone were her chubby cheeks and cute, round face. Instead, her face had become angular and her cheeks were sunken. Thoughts raced across my mind. Was she anorexic? What had made her become so skeletal?

3. Use figurative language like metaphors and similes to add colour to your writing.

He looked as furious as a ferocious lion that was about to pounce on its prey.

Read the sentences below. Can you make them more interesting by using the steps taught above?

 My brother is so untidy.

 The witch was evil.

 Susie is kind.

Have a go at adding details to the sentences and drop your descriptions in the comments section!

Ms Nora

Nora is an English Teacher at Lil’ but Mighty. She is committed to providing students with a dynamic and nurturing environment in which they can grow and develop. One of her greatest strengths as an educator is instilling a love for the English Language in her students.

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