Thursday, August 20, 2015

Show, Don't Tell

If you’ve been a writer for more than ten minutes, especially if you’re actively trying to learn the craft, you’ve heard someone utter the maxim “show, don’t tell.” It’s great advice, but what does it really mean?

Good question.

How do you rid your manuscript of something so nebulous? Let’s face it, some telling is unavoidable. If you’ve got some exposition to get out quickly, telling is your friend, but telling should be a small portion of your writing toolbox.

When writing a novel or fiction of any sort, you should hunt down telling phrases and give them the ax whenever possible. But tracking telling down can be harder than you might think. Some of the best advice I’ve read regarding this topic came from a Writer’s Digest article written by Roseann Biederman.
“Get the passage in front of you and ask this of it: Can the camera see it?”
Can the (metaphorical) camera see it? So simple, yet so effective. Let’s go over a few examples.
Jane didn’t know what to do. She, on average, was a pretty indecisive person. Just figureing out what to wear in the morning was taxing beyond belief. Maybe one day, she’d learn how to speak her mind and stand up for herself, but as she stared into the face of the meanest, bitchiest cheerleader on her high school’s squad, she knew today wouldn’t be that day.
So showing versus telling, which is this? If you guessed primarily telling, then *ding, ding, ding* you get a cookie. The camera can show Jane is staring into the face of the cheerleader but little else.

Let’s look at another example:
Jane planted her feet, pulled her shoulders back and stared down the meanest, bitchiest cheerleader on the high school squad. “But out, Alison. No one asked you for your opinion.”
Alison tossed her bottle-blonde hair over her shoulder and leaned into Jane. “How dare you talk to me like that. Don’t you know who I am?”
“Yeah, I know exactly who you are. A bitch.” 
How about this example? Showing or telling? Telling, exactly. This is stuff the camera would pick up if this were a movie. We would see Alison toss her blonde hair. We’d hear the dialogue between the two. This is showing.

Like I said before, telling isn’t always bad. You’ll have to judge that for yourself once your story is complete.


Here’s a list of some inherent telling words. In other words, if you’re using these, you’re telling, hence the name “telling words”. ;-)

Feel/ Felt
  • Avoid: “She felt the breeze on her cheek.” 
  • Try: “The breeze kissed her cheek.”
  • Avoid: “She watched him walk across the room.” 
  • Try: “He walked across the room.” 
  • Avoid: “She saw him walk across the room.” 
  • Try: “He walked across the room.”
  • Avoid: “She heard the birds chirping.” 
  • Try: “The birds chirped.”
  • Avoid: “She thought he was the cutest boy in school.” 
  • Try: “He was the cutest boy in school.”
  • Avoid: “She wondered if he thought she was pretty.” 
  • Try: “Did he think she was pretty?”