Writers are always told to show, not tell. Showing instead of telling allows the reader to experience the story through feelings, senses, thoughts, words, and actions instead of the writers’ exposition and description.
One of the biggest challenges for writers is finding ways to show rather than tell, especially when it comes to character development.
Readers can learn a lot about a character, particularly when the character is first introduced, from the vocabulary, use of slang, length of sentence(s), use of correct or incorrect grammar rules, and even punctuation in the character’s speech.
Using dialogue in fiction, and even nonfiction, is one of the main ways to show a person’s character traits. It helps show, rather than tell, what the protagonist, the antagonist, and the other characters who are speaking are like.
Instead of describing them, writers get to illustrate these characters’ traits through their interactions with other characters, more specifically through their questions, responses, and interjections, or verbal communication.
A character’s speech is often quoted, and with quoted speech, there are quotation marks and a reporting verb. A reporting verb is the verb that introduces the speech. The verb “to say” is one example of a reporting verb. Other examples are to ask, to explain, to admit, to demand, and so many more.
Writers can completely alter the readers’ perception of the character by using the right reporting verb. Readers would interpret things very differently if the reporting verb changed, for example, from “smiled” to “sneered” or from “said” to “stuttered” with the same quoted speech: She smiled, “Thank you.” / She sneered, “Thank you.” /// He said, “I don’t know.” / He stuttered, “I don’t know.” The context changes completely with just one reporting verb.
There is a lot writers can do with dialogue to inform the readers. However, using verbal cues isn’t the only way to show who and how a person is. Nonverbal cues, such as posture, gestures, and expressions, can also be used in writing to demonstrate an array of emotions as well as communicate contradiction, confirmation, provocation, and so forth: She arched her back. / She tapped her fingers on the table. / She rolled her eyes. / He shook his fist. / He craned his neck.
Using a character’s body language can deliver other messages to the readers, too. Writers can establish trust and confidence by making a character’s verbal and nonverbal cues match. In the same manner, they can put the readers on guard and develop mistrust by displaying contradictory cues in the character’s verbal and nonverbal expressions: looking down / shifty eye contact / shaking head “no” while saying “yes” / looking away.
Writers can use accurate descriptions of both verbal and nonverbal cues by imagining themselves in similar situations. There are also many online resources that can aid writers understand and use the “show, don’t tell” technique.
Using verbal and nonverbal cues will allow readers to draw their own conclusions about the characters and connect with the story using their own perceptions and perspective. This connection makes a big difference in what readers experience.