Updated: Sep 6, 2020
When writing a novel, everyone wants to give you advice. Even people who have never penned a literary sentence in their life.
“Put more of this in there!” one will insist. “That will spice it up.”
“Why didn’t you include an XYZ?” another will exclaim, then start tsking at you like you missed the obvious. Because, you know, everyone needs an XYZ. Didn’t you know?
But let’s not single out the know-nothings when it comes to novel-writing. Because the know-somethings can be just as bad.
In fact, sometimes the know-somethings – or, worse yet, the know-everythings – are even worse. Particularly when it comes to squawking about “show, don’t tell.”
No doubt you’ve heard that line before. It’s quoted often enough, though far too many experts take it for granted that everyone already knows what it means. Or that, once it’s stated, everyone automatically understands it.
"Show, don’t tell" means "show, don’t tell."
If that “duh” didn’t do it for you, you’re not alone. So let’s explore what this advice is and how to apply it in its most basic form.
Show, Don’t Tell:
No matter what anyone wants to tell you, “show, don’t tell” is not a writing rule. It’s a writing decision, where an author can describe something – a character’s height or a setting’s temperature, for instance – without blatantly stating it. The point is still made (whatever that point may be), but it’s made in a more poetic fashion.
When done well, showing, not telling, can make a sentence stand out more like an image or a movie snippet than a book with unmovable black letters on a white or cream page.
More on that first point about it not being a writing rule on Friday. And more on that last point on Thursday.
For now though, let’s put this non-writing rule front and center on display.
“Bob was tall.”
That’s an example of you telling the readers a detail about your story. Your character Bob is a tall guy. Therefore, you come right out and tell it like it is. Like a normal person would.
Showing, on the other hand, is going to look more like this: “Seeing the lady strain to reach the top shelf even though she didn’t have a prayer of getting that box of cornmeal way up there, Bob stepped over to grab it for her.”
By writing it that way, you never once used the word “tall,” yet you described his height just fine anyway. This second way of writing what you mean gives you a boosted word count, for one thing. And that’s always nice.
But there’s also the appeal of it setting a whole scene instead of merely giving a single fact.
Here’s another example: “The heat was intense!” That’s telling.
This is showing: “Outside again, the sweat went right back to dripping down Dana’s back in mere seconds.”
Here’s an easy way to evaluate the next story sentence you write…
Telling is a descriptive statement that usually uses adjectives such as “tall” or “intense.” Which naturally means it’s also often heavy on to-be verbs (i.e., is, was, were). Showing, meanwhile, will be much more likely to use action verbs to get a point across.
If you think you’ve got it now, that’s awesome. But keep reading this week’s posts all the same to keep from falling into these “show, don’t tell” traps.
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on "show, don't tell" here.