Updated: Sep 6, 2020
To start out blog post No. 2 on the “show, don’t tell” writing non-rule (again, more about this later)… let’s quote from blog post No. 1:
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.
I said I’d explain more about that when we got to our Writing Challenge, which you can find down below.
In order to understand it though, first imagine an exceptionally evocative movie scene. Since I just found Disney’s Brave under my couch, I’m going to go with that one as my personal choice.
It’s the one where Merida, the feisty, red-haired Scottish princess, accidentally turns her mum into a bear. With all hope seemingly lost of transforming her back, she stares into her mother’s big brown eyes and apologizes.
Then she throws herself in between her paws and just starts to sob.
It’s a very dramatic two minutes that might have to be shortened to work in a book… showing, telling, or not.
A dramatic movie scene can go on for two whole minutes because it has visual and audio embellishments. And while showing can go a long way in making a book seem like a movie scene, it still isn’t.
Now, sometimes, showing a single emotion or action or sight or sound should perhaps go on for 400 words. (That’s the writing equivalent of two minutes.)
If it seems like you’ve got one of those situations on hand, write it out and get some feedback. Just be careful not to automatically assume you need to go on and on and on with “the show.”
Don’t Try to Get Cute With “Show, Don’t Tell.”
Sometimes, we go overboard trying to show something instead of telling, thinking that one has to be longer than the other. In most cases, sure, showing will take up more space than telling. But that doesn’t mean it has to take up substantially more space.
If you notice your non-telling goes on for paragraphs at a time, you might want to rethink your strategy. It may seem poetic to spend significant time describing a story element without ever once stating what you’re conveying. But poetry can get pretty tired pretty fast.
That’s no offense to poetry, by the way. It’s just not what you’re writing, no matter how many poetic elements it contains.
So let’s refresh what we’ve learned…
For starters, novels are supposed to employ poetic flourishes. But they’re not poetry themselves.
Novels are also supposed to paint pictures. But don't for a second think that they're the same thing as a picture. Because they're not.
And novels are supposed to inspire the same kind of emotions that music does. But they’re not music themselves.
They’re a collection of words (and words alone) that need to establish plots and subplots, main characters and secondary characters, settings and dialogue and action and passion and confusion and understanding.
As I know I’ve said before, if you focus on any one element too long, you risk boring your readers. So don’t “show” your fights or smooches, steps and scenery for too long.
Remember to leave some room to “tell” what else matters as well.
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on "show, don't tell" here.