‘Show Don’t Tell’ is one of the most common pieces of writing advice around (followed closely by ‘Kill Your Darlings’ which is daft but that’s another post). The problem with show don’t tell is that it’s unspecific. And also just kind of impossible.
Let’s start with the impossible (and I’m going to be very literal for a moment). When writing a book, I am going to tell you everything. I am going to tell you what the character does and what they say and where they say it and how. When it comes down to it, I’m using words to convey the story so telling is really all I’ve got.
The biggest difference between my early and later drafts is all the things I don’t tell you. I can write a novel in 10,000 words because there’s a whole world in my mind that I know and understand but don’t put words to – where the characters are and what it looks like, the nuances of their expressions and their emotional beats in a conversation. My editors help me focus in on the gaps they’re most interested in and I build from there. The most common note I get is, “I don’t get that” or “I don’t understand” because half the novel exists in my mind instead of on paper. So, giving myself the freedom to tell the reader things is important to my process.
The key, and the real purpose behind a cliche like ‘Show Don’t Tell’ is how I tell you. And there are generally two problems you’re trying to solve with this particular cliche.
General description is incredibly handy to move characters from one scene to the next; to move them through time or space to get to the next interesting part. Diving into the dialog or emotion instead of using general description immerses the reader in the world, the moments and the characters and what they’re thinking and feeling. Mostly, that immersion is really important. Sometimes, you’ve just got to get them half way across the kingdom, it’s ok if nothing interesting happens along the way.
Believability is about earning the reader’s trust. I read a novel once where the main couple had been best friends forever. They’d grown up together and now that they’re older teenagers they’d fallen in love. But somewhere around chapter 2 they are ripped apart.
The majority of the book is her interacting with this other guy. They talk. They get in scrapes together and they find ways out. There’s banter and they understand each other because they’re in this situation together. The problem is, the whole time she’s talking about how in love she is with the other guy.
But I don’t believe it. I don’t hear anything in the story other than the words “I’m really in love with him.” No memories that build their relationship for me. Nothing that reminds her of this other guys and breaks her heart at his absence. I don’t believe the words the author or the character is telling me because they’re not built on anything else.
That’s show don’t tell. And there are more specific ways to advise a writer than just saying, ‘Show Don’t Tell’ like:
- Use sensations. Tell us something tactile in the scene. Especially in general description, tactile description makes it come alive.
- Don’t use dialog tags. Instead, use emotion or action and include the speaking characters name in the sentence.
- Also, just use action. Move the characters around the room and around each other. Movement creates energy, which is pretty much always a good thing.
- If you’re going to tell me something, make sure you’ve given me evidence of it somewhere else. The worst thing is when one character says that another character is really courageous or really smart but we’ve read nothing in the novel that would make the us believe those words.
Those are just some of my writing rules. I’m sure it’s a very incomplete list. The bottom line is, you’re an author not a director. Telling is all you’ve got. Make it interesting.
What are some of your writing rules? Are there specific ways you make your writing more interesting? Or, what’s the one piece of writing advice you wish you could redefine?