Post: Let your characters tell the story


When trying to set the scene or describe unfolding events to readers, it’s always best if an author keeps three letters in mind: SDT. These letters represent the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” It can mean the difference between a good story and a great one. For example, you could write that your character is cold, or you can show it through certain behavior, such as stuffing hands deep into pockets, shivering and teeth chattering, or pulling a scarf up to cover the whole face except the eyes.

In addition to SDT for “setting a scene,” you can let your characters tell the story by inviting readers into their minds. Experiencing a character’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc., allows a reader to “live” a story, not just “read” it. As an author, you can take a step back from narrating to let your story unfold through your characters. 

Best-selling authors who excel at letting readers into the minds of their characters

From past to present, there have been many best-selling authors who are known for letting their characters tell their stories, such as: 

  • Fyodor Dostoevsky: Readers are catapulted into the mind of Rodion Raskolnikov as he suffers mental anguish and dilemmas because of his decision to commit murder. Much of the story takes place “inside his head.”
  • Elizabeth Strout: Her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, readers experience the brutally honest thoughts and profound insights of the main character as she both observes and experiences the mundane, joyful, mysterious and tragic unfolding of the everyday lives of those around her. 
  • Harper Lee: The narrator of this story is a now-grown Jean “Scout” Finch, who takes readers back in time and into her own youthful mind as she recalls the events of 1933-1935, which taught her about the best and worst of humanity. 

The internal monologue in these stories not only reveals the characters’ thoughts, but also enables readers to experience events from their unique perspectives. In each of these novels, the authors take a back seat while the thoughts of the main characters tell the story. 

Practice internal monologue and other character-telling-the-story skills

Keep these ideas in mind to help improve your show-don’t-tell writing skills

  • Use thoughts, emotions and behavior to help readers experience, rather than “read” a story. 
  • Let your main character’s perspective help form your readers’ opinions.
  • Allowing readers to share the private thoughts and emotions of a character creates a special connection. 

Reading a wide genre of books that feature a lot of internal monologues and show-don’t-tell scenes is the best way to improve your own writing skills.