“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
For some reason, the rumor on the internet about “show, don’t tell” is that it is hard to spot and difficult to master. I don’t pretend to be some sort of genius at this, but I think that quote from Anton Chekhov illustrates it easily and brilliantly. It’s one that I keep in mind when I’m writing. But if I’m being honest with myself, it’s a little disingenuous to say, “I know it when I see it.” The truth is, it hasn’t always been that easy for me to spot in my own writing. You only need to look at the first chapter of my first full-length novel, In Her Closet, Book One of The Lust Diaries. I somehow managed to do too much of both! Since then, I’ve realized that show, don’t tell is not something you learn once and master. And a lot of the confusion can be credited to the way this particular bit of writing advice is explained.
First, let’s define “show, don’t tell.”
In very simple terms, showing allows readers to experience the story along with your characters rather than observing them. Telling summarizes instead of allowing the reader to form their own decisions. Showing gets your reader involved in the story and evokes emotion. Telling distances the reader from the events and characters in the story.
Wordmakers, if you’ve been paying any attention to my posts on character development, you know that unintentionally creating distance between your characters and your reader is the last thing that I want for you. But those brief explanatory definitions, you would assume that telling is all bad and has no place in fiction. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Telling is not all bad. Like any other piece of writing advice, there is a time and a place to use it.
“Show, don’t tell” is really about using descriptive language.
When you’re revising your book, telling language will stand out in ways that will make them easy to spot so that you know when you’re doing it wrong.
Here are a few ways to spot “telling” in your writing:
You give your readers conclusions instead of clues. Often this is a sign that you don’t trust that your writing will provide the evidence they need to come to the conclusion themselves.
You use vague, abstract language. If you can’t visualize what’s happening in the sentence—if it doesn’t create a picture in your mind—you’re probably telling.
You sum up what happened. This typically happens at the beginning of a scene or at the end. Quite often, in an effort to get to the point, or “the good stuff” you summarize the scene. Or maybe you just want to wrap it up neat and tidy with a bow. This is a sure sign that you’re telling.
You use too much backstory. Important scenes should be shown to your readers in real time. Past perfect tense is usually a good signpost for this particular mistake, ie. had watched. In The Basic Character Creation Workbook I explain when and how to use your backstory, but if you’re unsure, eliminate it altogether if it doesn’t enhance the scene in any significant way.
You use too many adjectives. Wherever you see an adjective in your writing, look at the noun or pronoun that it modifies to make sure that you’re using them creatively and to make an impact.
Your verb usage is weak. The above-mentioned adjectives are usually combined with linking verbs—verbs that connect a subject with an adjective or a noun, ie. was/were, is/are, felt, appeared, seemed. These verbs are weak because they don’t show any action. Replace these with more active verbs and you should eliminate the telling language.
You use too many filter words. Saw, smelled, heard, felt, watched, noticed—these are all filter verbs that describe what a character is perceiving or thinking. This is problematic because they tell the reader what the character is thinking or feeling instead of letting them experience it directly.
You tell your reader what your character is feeling. When you name an emotion, you’re telling. This is actually the easiest one to spot and fix. Instead of naming emotions, use actions, thoughts, reactions, and body language to show what your character is feeling.
These are all great ways to spot telling in your writing, but in my opinion, the easiest way to know when you’re telling? It’s boring. True, Hemingway is a beloved novelist, and he sure as fuck told us everything that happened to everyone in his books. So this is something that can be left to up to interpretation. It’s just my opinion that we don’t read fiction to be told a story, we read fiction to be entertained.
Having that said, there are definitely times that you should tell.
If you’ve written an intensely dramatic scene. If emotions are high and intense, showing too much will seem melodramatic. This is the perfect time to sum things up or gradually ease the tension with a bit of telling.
When you’re revisiting a static setting. If your characters have been to a location before, it’s fine to minimize the descriptive language you use to ground your character in a familiar setting.
When your character is moving from one location to another. If the trip between the coffee shop and your character’s job isn’t important, the reader doesn’t need a turn-by-turn navigation from point A to point B.
When you need to convey a passage of time, a change of location, or swap point-of-view. A sentence or two to transition the reader to the next scene, location, or point of view will do. Give them just enough to anchor the reader in the scene and dive into the important stuff.
When the details won’t advance the plot. We don’t need to watch your character work through a bit of complicated code while waiting for important information from his colleague. If there isn’t something in that code that will advance the plot, leave it out. No matter how smart it makes you sound.
When you need to write an action or fight scene. The pace of an action or fight scene should be fast and adding too many details can slow it down. Show the important details, and tell what isn’t.
When you want to minimize the importance of a particular detail. This shows a reader that this detail is not something they need to remember. Minimizing that importance of an important detail can also be a cool foreshadowing trick.
When it’s part of your character’s personality. Your character might be the sort who doesn’t pay attention to detail. Some people are just more matter-of-fact than others. Telling important details can make it obvious that this is how they see the world.
In summary, if you have factual information to impart, it’s fine to just tell it.
There is, however, one place in your writing where you should always show and not tell: when you’re talking about character emotions. We’ll talk about that next week.
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