Three Thoughts about Show Don’t Tell
By Brad R. Cook
Show Don’t Tell is probably the most reiterated writing rule… after write a good sentence… but what does it mean. Obviously, show the reader what the character is doing rather than tell them every action. There is so much more to this than three simple words. Show Don't Tell is easy to understand but impossible to master.
I think Anton Chekhov said it best:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Showing – using an active voice and giving rich descriptions to imply what is happening to a character and how those actions make them feel.
Telling – using a few words to inform the reader of what has transpired.
Here are three thoughts about Show Don’t Tell:
1 – Don’t Skip the Good Parts
Telling robs writers and readers of what they both want out of any story – vibrant descriptions that create images in their minds. Writers want to create them, it’s what we all strive to do, and readers want them out of every book they pick up. We read or write to be transported to a different world. Showing allows us to smell every scent, feel every surface, see every wonder.
Telling a scene skips over all the good parts and cuts to the bare bones of the story. Wouldn’t everyone rather have a thick, juicy, St. Louis style rib, than a bone with a little bit of meat covering it. Of course. So don’t skip the good parts. Stretch out the moment. Spend time describing the details. Make the reader feel every emotion. The book will be better and your reader will adore you.
2 – Add Rich Descriptions
Showing is all about descriptions. Use them. I’m not talking about purple prose - overly elaborate, long-winded paragraphs without any white space on the page - I'm looking for vibrant and well worded passages. Add descriptions to enrich the senses. Make every word count, make the reader cling to every moment so they pray it never ends. Descriptions are one of the best ways to show what is going on in the scene.
Don’t say he swung the sword and cut the bad guy. Have the flick of a wrist circle the enemy’s blade and thrust through his defenses to push into the thick leather armor and the flesh underneath. Show the enemy collapse on the blade. The sword penetrates the internal organs and emerge out the enemy’s back. Tell the reader how the character feels seeing the life drain from his foe. It will be a stronger scene than just saying he swung his sword and cut the bad guy.
3 – Make it a Conversation
The other technique, beside descriptions to show and not tell is to turn it into conversation. Rather than have a single throwaway line. Have two characters talk about it. Have the main character see what is happening and describe it to another. A great example of this is Ant-Man when Luis info dumps what is happening off screen. They could have had all those scenes but that would have slowed the story to a crawl. By having Luis tell Ant-Man about everything it goes from a very telling scene (literally) to a rather iconic and funny scene. Now there are calls online for Luis to recap the entire Marvel story line.
Not only do agents, publishers, and editors want you to Show Don’t Tell, the real reason we follow this writing rule is for the reader. Our job is to give readers the best, most immersive story possible. With so many books on the shelf, readers gravitate to the ones that provide a unique experience and rich descriptions are one way to impart that experience.
So spend a little time with each scene in your next manuscript figuring out where you can Show and not Tell the story.
Brad R. Cook, author of the YA steampunk series, The Iron Chronicles. Iron Horsemen - http://www.amazon.com/Iron-Horsemen-The-Chronicles/dp/0989207951 and Iron Zulu - http://www.amazon.com/Iron-Zulu-Book-Two-Chronicles/dp/0989207978. A member of SCBWI, he currently serves as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild after three and half years as its President. Learn more at www.bradrcook.com, on Twitter @bradrcook https://twitter.com/bradrcook, or on his blog Thoughts from Midnight on tumblr http://bradrcook.tumblr.com/