Made in America

Show Don’t Tell: Friendships

If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop class in your lifetime, you’ve likely heard your instructor smugly say the phrase, “Show, don’t tell,” as a general criticism of your writing. For those who aren’t familiar with this phrase that has been hammered into our heads, it essentially means you shouldn’t be telling your readers how to think and feel throughout your book. Rather than telling them that your character is ‘feeling insecure’, you should be showing your reader this fact and allowing them to pick up on it themselves. It certainly ups your word count to use this approach, but it greatly ups your quality of writing as well. Throughout this series, we will give all of you tellers out there some tips on how to show different types of feelings and relationships throughout your manuscript. Today, we dive into the laughter, playful nudges, and whispered secrets involved in showing book friendships:

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1) Mannerisms

One way to show your readers that two characters are close friends is by using their mannerisms and body language. When two people are close, especially when they’ve known one another for a long time, they naturally have a higher level of comfortability around each other. So, having your characters pat one another on the back, rest their head on their friend’s shoulder, playfully nudge one another, uncross their arms when one spots the other- these types of actions show the reader that these two characters are close.

You can even use less obvious mannerisms as a way of showing the reader they know one another well. For example, perhaps one character always taps his foot when he’s nervous. Have your other character notice him doing this and call him out on it. This shows the reader that these characters not only display more open/warm body language around each other, but they also know one another well enough to recognize and idiosyncratic body language as well.

2) Dialogue

Another excellent way to display friendships in your writing is by using dialogue. This is also one where you need to be cautious because you can easily slip into lazy writing territory. The last thing you want to do is write something along the lines of, “Hey Tim, you know how we’ve been friends since the second grade?” Authors often make the mistake of writing dialogue like this in order to establish a long friendship. The problem with this is that it sounds super unnatural and is too clearly the author sending a message to the reader. This can have the effect of taking the reader out of the book slightly.

Instead of being so obvious about it, attempt to cite a specific memory that goes along with a conversation that they’re having. Say you’re writing two male characters, one of which is asking the other for girl advice. You could have his friend say something like, “As long as you don’t throw up on her shoes I think you’ll be fine,” and the other could say, “Dude, that was in second grade, when are you going to let that go?” This not only establishes some playful banter between the characters, but also gives a rough timeline on the friendship in a more natural manner.

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3) Circumstantial Differentiation

You can also show your readers a close friendship by differentiating between how your characters act around one another vs. how they act around other characters. So perhaps one of your characters is joking around and being very fun and outgoing around their close friend, but then some of their other friends come over and that person instantly becomes shyer or more guarded. Or maybe one of your characters if very boisterous around other people, but when they’re alone with their best friend they’re more relaxed and sensitive. You can also have their mannerisms change, having them cross their arms, ruffle their hair, cover their mouth with their hand- all of these can show the reader that the character has become less comfortable.

4) Confidence/Protectiveness

As you’ll know from friendships in your own life, close friendships offer a certain level of confidence. Having your characters confide their feelings or secrets with one another will help establish the level of trust that they have for one another. This doesn’t have to be a seamless process to show their closeness either. Perhaps the character being confided isn’t going to react well to this secret- friendships don’t have to be perfect and loving all the time to be close. Having the confiding character say something like, “I knew you’d be like this…” or something along those lines to indicate that they know each other well enough to predict their reactions does just as well to show your reader that closeness.

In addition to confiding in each other, close friends tend to also show protectiveness around each other. So, you could introduce a character that one of the friends deems as untrustworthy and show how they stand up straighter and act wary or defensive of their best friend while in this person’s presence. Or you could introduce a character that the best friend is threatened by as another potential best friend and show some jealousy there.

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5) Other Characters

Finally, you can use other characters and their opinions to reinforce the friendship you’ve established. Having other characters like your protagonist’s parents or additional friends that also reinforce the reverence and closeness of the friendship will also reinforce this to your reader. So perhaps your protagonist’s parent is always asking, “Where’s Jimmy?” anytime your protagonist is seen without him or maybe the best friends get into a fight at some point and everyone is shocked by this. Having people outside of the friendship notice how close they are gives even more legitimacy to the friendship.

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