Updated: Mar 21, 2019
Nothing is worse than getting the dreaded “show, don’t tell” note back from your editor.
You read it again and again, repeating in your mind: I thought I was showing. This looks like showing to me! So, how do you get out of the show, don’t tell trap? Read on.
Why it's important
The Show, Don’t Tell advice is all about your relationship to the reader. It’s intended to help a writer create a mental picture for readers instead of just explaining what happens in the story. Showing gets the reader involved, making them draw from their own experience to understand and relate to the characters and their story. You get the picture started, and the reader’s imagination takes over to bring your novel to life.
How it's misunderstood
This is important advice, to be sure. The problem is (as with most other writing advice) it’s often taken too far. Showing requires more description—which means more words—and can wear your readers out. We’ve all read those books with the 3-page description of a single room. I guess I should say—we’ve all skimmed those books because we don’t need 3 pages to depict a room. This brings me to my next point.
Sometimes you have to tell
Getting your reader up to speed so you can move on. For example: there’s too much backstory to show in flashback or through dialogue. Or the reader doesn’t know something that all the characters do.
Easing the boring parts of life that are necessary to make your story feel real, like small talk, changing clothes, and commutes.
Transitioning from one scene to the next. A bit of telling means you don’t need a million asterisks in your book.
Enhancing the reader’s connection. Yep, sometimes narrative can be magical. There’s a reason why we call it storytelling. As I’ve said before (and I’m sure I’ll say again), context is everything.
How to show: some general advice and warnings
All of showing can be summed up in one word: detail.
When I work with a coaching client who struggles with showing, I tell them to write in excruciating detail. We can always cut and condense later (and usually do!), but writing this way gets them into the spirit of Show, Don’t Tell. Want some tips to help you show better in your writing? Of course you do.
Describe events thoroughly. Be specific. Like I said above, you can always edit out too much description, but not enough will leave your story feeling flat.
Warning! Don’t miss the forest for the trees—focus on the details that matter. Does your reader really need to know, in painstaking detail, the size, shape, color, scent, and texture of each item of clothing your protagonist is wearing? Probably not. If in doubt, ask how it enhances or detracts from the emotional connection to the story.
Showing how a character experiences something is often much more engaging than explaining it. Focus on the senses and on physical responses. These are universal and represent nonverbal communication, which is a huge part of how we communicate in real life.
Warning! When talking about someone’s sensory experiences, it’s easy to fall into clichés. Beware throbbing pulses, hammering hearts, twinkling eyes, and scents and sights assaulting people.
Dialogue is a great way to show a character’s feelings, motivations, backstory, relationships…pretty much everything—foster an emotional connection with your reader.
Warning!You can still dump information in dialogue. Especially be careful not to have characters telling each other things they should already know, simply to benefit the reader.
How do you make Show, Don’t Tell work for you? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.