Every child’s favorite subject in school, and every writer’s most hated concept.
What does the writing expression, “Show, don’t tell,” even mean? I’m supposed to be telling a story, so how can “telling” be bad?
Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. When I first received this advice, I misunderstood it to mean I needed more dialog. Even I am unsure what my younger self was thinking. Flash forward to the evil talking heads taking over my manuscript until conversations abounded and no action actually took place. Believe it or not, that’s still telling. Probably an even more obnoxious form of telling than the one I started with.
So what exactly is “showing”? A new writer can receive this feedback a million times, but it isn’t going to help if she doesn’t understand the problem the well-intended critique partner is trying to flag.
Years ago an explanation by Gail Carson Levine first opened my eyes to the true difference between showing and telling in the larger sense of storytelling. (Sorry, I don’t have the link, but the post is probably still in her blog history if you want to go hunting). She was the first author I’d heard contrast the two methods as a difference in pacing. If you slowly set the scene and have your characters’ behavior illustrate every action and feeling, the story comes to life in your readers’ minds. We experience the event alongside the main character, and draw our own conclusions from the words, body language, and reactions we observe. No need to “tell” us the butler is hiding the candlestick in the Conservatory if you’ve “shown” us in many scenes that he’s prevented other characters from entering that room and he’s inconsistently lied to everyone who asked about the missing candles. We draw our own conclusions on why he’s behaving that way, and keep reading to confirm our suspicions. That’s showing, an awesome storytelling technique.
Scenes you’ve “shown” should take pages to convey rather than a few sentences, and should be used for the majority of your manuscript. Eliminate any emotional tags (i.e. I felt sad) or conclusion tags (i.e. I realized the butler did it). Feel free to describe settings, but keep the action moving forward with conflict and events relevent to the main plot. And keep in mind it’s not possible to “show” during every single moment of a manuscript.
Occasionally you’ll need a few quick sentences to transition scenes or move forward in time. Please “tell” us it’s the next day rather than “showing” a character sleeping for eight hours with no action. And there’s no need to vividly describe an author walking two miles to the next scene location if nothing relevent to the plot happens along the way. A gripping manuscript requires ninety-five percent “showing” and only five percent “telling” to keep the story moving.
After a few years of writing, I moved past the “show, don’t tell” critique on my writing. Thought I had a great handle on this issue. Then last week I read this great blog post by Marcy Kennedy with techniques to “show” rather than “tell” in your sentence-by-sentence writing mechanics.
That is the sound of my writing mind exploding as I ponder a whole new depth of meaning for “Show, Don’t Tell.”