You’ve heard the phrase Show, don’t tell, right? It’s, like, Writing 101. That is, editors think it is, anyway. We say it all the time. But I’ve begun to realize it’s harder than all our editorial admonishment (show; don’t tell … show, don’t tell … show-don’t-tell, showdonttell, dagnabbit) indicates, because I sure spend a lot of time pointing it out.
The fact is, show, don’t tell doesn’t (ahem) tell much. It’s a difficult concept that sounds simple, which only makes it more frustrating.
Here is a bit of my shopworn spiel on the subject. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one.)
It’s always better to watch characters act or react than it is to be told they felt a certain way. If a character is angry, don’t write, “John was angry.” That’s telling. Instead, write, “John’s eyes narrowed, and he stared her without speaking for a moment. Then he turned and stalked out of the room. Marcia flinched when the door slammed.”
In this example, it’s easy to see the difference, but it takes a little bit of creativity to fix. As my writer friend Isabel Rogers says, “The quickest way to dump a bit of plot on the page is telling the reader what happened, not faffing around trying to ‘show’ it through a character’s actions and reactions.”
And that’s the thing. Telling is lazy writing. I mean, it really is sooo much easier to say John was mad at Marcia. It is much easier to interpret/say (tell) something that’s going on with a character or the scene, rather than letting the dialogue or action convey (show) it. Here’s another example:
He headed up to his apartment after a late night at work, but suddenly he saw the door was slightly ajar. He was sure he’d locked it earlier, but there was no sign of a break-in. His first concern was for his valuable bicycle (he needed it to get around town); his second, his cash savings he’d stashed in a cigar box under the bed. Much to his relief, everything was as he’d left it; a major mess. As he lay in bed, a shiver went down his spine. If it hadn’t been a one-room apartment with virtually nowhere to hide, he’d have sworn he was being watched.
Here’s one possible faffing-around fix:
As he reached the top of the stairs, he froze—the door was slightly ajar. He held his breath and listened. Nothing. So he pushed it open. All quiet. He stuck his head in—still quiet. The room was a mess but it was his mess; nothing was out of place. He ran quickly to the kitchen; his bike was right where he’d left it. So was his cash. Hm. Maybe he hadn’t closed the door tightly, maybe … But as he lay in bed later, he shuddered; he could have sworn he was being watched.
Now, see how that takes you from telling to showing, using action?
But … there’s more to it than this. Telling manifests in more ways than one.
The simplest type of telling is when you use a said substitute (like he mumbled or she snapped or he retorted) or an adverbial dialogue tag (like she said tiredly or he asked hopefully). We’ve discussed this before; you should keep it to a minimum.
And there’s the sort of telling editors call an info dump. I once worked on a manuscript in which the author tied up all the loose ends in two paragraphs; Johnny and Mary got married, adopted that feral child, and opened the B&B they’d always dreamed of with money his rich uncle, conveniently now dead, left him. But an info dump is no fun for readers, kids. And literary fun is what keeps them coming back to your second book, your third.
This interesting article uses the second Harry Potter book (Chamber of Secrets) to show what can be done to avoid an info dump. Harry’s had a miserable summer, alone and confined. His owl Hedwig has been locked in her cage, and Harry’s forbidden to study his wizarding books. But rather than saying that, we read that “Mr. Dursley was awakened by Hedwig’s hooting. Then we get Harry saying, ‘She’s bored. … If I could just let her out at night—’ As a result, readers learn that Hedwig is kept locked in her cage.” And that Harry’s bored and frustrated too. Nice. The difference between telling and showing is, actually, that simple.
The worst kind of telling, to my mind, is when the writer overtly tells the reader what to think:
“I’ve been meaning to tell you something,” Nora said.
“Oh?” Jack leaned forward, wondering what she might be referring to.
In this case, Jack’s dialogue and body language already tell us everything we need to know. We can remove the offending clause and absolutely no meaning is lost. Here’s another:
The student had no idea what the teacher was talking about, so naturally he had to fake it. “Of course,” he said. “That makes perfect sense.”
Again, his dialogue makes it clear he’s faking it. And it’s much more pleasant for the reader to get that little frisson of recognition: Ah! I know what’s going on here! Seriously, you don’t need to tell the reader what to think. You want her to think on her own. (And trust me when I say she would rather think on her own.)
If you find yourself using as if, take another look at that sentence, just in case. You might be telling. (Cast a similarly jaded eye on obviously or clearly. Make sense? Think about it.)
The old retired racehorse flicked his tail as if he was eager to take off.
You can delete the telling and move on, but if this concept it important enough to highlight, go past deletion to a rewrite:
The retired racehorse’s tail flicked and he pranced lightly in place, shifting his long legs. Jack stroked his neck and murmured, “Soon, old boy, soon.”
I know it’s hard. You really have to devote one pass of your self-edits just to look for telling. But even the most experienced authors struggle with this concept, so don’t beat yourself up, OK?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”