What does it really mean to show, don’t tell?
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most commonly spouted pieces of advice emerging authors hear. But for many, making the distinction is difficult. Authors can’t fix this problem if they don’t recognize it in their manuscripts.
Since your character will be moping around today nursing a bruised ego, this is a good time to discuss show vs. tell.
Scenes that are sequels in nature tend to fall into the telling trap. The character does little except think about what happened. But just because there is little action happening around the character, doesn’t mean you can slip into long paragraphs of exposition.
Telling is boring to read, so even these self-reflection/character building scenes need to be active. i.e. you need to show it happening.
Tips to identify telling
If you can’t see it on a movie screen, it’s telling. (I’m borrowing from Jeff Gerke The First Fifty Pages.)
Let’s look at an example.
He was exhausted– telling
When I caught up to him, he was breathing hard and his shirt was soaked through in sweat.
Notice that you can see a sweaty shirt.
But wait, you can’t see someone breathing hard.
True, but you can hear it. One critical difference between a movie and a book narration is the addition of four other senses. Don’t forget about them. When you’re constructing your motivation-reaction units (MRU) the input cycle can contain any of the five senses. (No, the MRU isn’t going away. Ever. So just give up and use them already.)
The movie example is a great starting place, but it has limitations.
The room was dirty.
This is still telling
But you just said…
Yes, you can see a dirty room, but how do you know the room is dirty? Did it smell of old socks? Was there an inch of dust covering everything? Smeared marks on the light switch?
Use the question- How do you know? If it isn’t in the narration, then you are telling. Let your reader be a detective. Give her the clues and let her draw the conclusion.
The room was darker than it should be at noon. Sweet smoke hung in a thick layer near the ceiling. Shafts of light pierced the drawn drapes and crossed over the mass of entwined bodies. Some curled together on the floor, others seemed to melt over the furniture. All were lost to the green fairy.
Where are we?
Notice, I only needed to describe the setting. I gave you the clues, you drew the conclusion. Here’s the same passage as telling.
We found Julie in an opium den.
In this example, I gave you the answer. There’s nothing for the reader to do and as a result, the passage isn’t engaging.
The amount you force your reader to play detective will differ based on what age group you are writing for. Adults will want all clues and no answer key. Teens will need some help, particularly with complex emotional reactions that they may have little experience with. Middle grade will need still more help and young readers are almost exclusive telling.
Every so often I see someone suggest using a search for “was” to identify telling in a manuscript. I don’t suggest this.
Forms of “to be” whether they are used as a linking verb or as the auxiliary verb in a present/past participle, usually indicate a static state for the subject. Static states (My shirt is blue) can indicate telling, but just as often does not. In addition, if you rely on this method you will miss many instances of true telling (The previous example “We found Julie in an opium den.” doesn’t use was.)
Active settings are setting descriptions that utilize action verbs. (This is not the opposite of passive voice. For more on the difference between active/linking verbs and active/passive voice click here.)
Making your settings active is generally good advice. Having leaves rustle in the wind is more interesting than saying its windy. But this can go too far and lead to overworked prose, most notably with weather or physical sensations. Sometimes it’s ok to just say it was raining. (Yes, telling isn’t always bad)
When telling is ok
- A setting change where you need a short exposition to get the reader grounded
- Where showing would take too much focus away from the main action (i.e. description of a secondary character)
- Weather or feelings. i.e. It was raining, The room felt cold. (I read a great article about “show emotions but tell feelings” but I can’t find it. If anyone could give me a link, I would really appreciate it.)
- sneaky telling (backstory in dialogue, but must be handled with care.)
What to do now
- As you write ask the question: But how do we know?
- Add in that description, letting your reader draw the conclusion.
- Don’t get caught in an editing loop during NaNoWriMo. If you can’t fix it immediately, move on.
Show, don’t tell doesn’t have to be difficult
Show, don’t tell may be the most common piece of advice out there, but it doesn’t have to be the most difficult to master. By continually asking “How do we know?” you can make sure your readers are getting the necessary information to immerse them in the story. Create a living world for your characters, show, don’t tell.
If you found this article useful, please share it with other writers on social media. Thanks!
Books mentioned in this article (Affiliate links)