Just when you think you’re getting the hang of this writing lark, some bright spark looks at your hard crafted piece of literature, still moist from the blood, sweat and tears, and mutters something unequivocally unhelpful such as ‘you know, you really should try to show, rather than tell.’
Excuse me? Show, don’t tell? But look, I’m telling you a story, aren’t I? How do I tell a story if I’m not allowed to tell? How do I show you a story without telling it first? It’s all so confusing, and it doesn’t help that often such ‘helpful’ critics drift off without properly explaining their apparent wisdom.
Fret not, most of us have been there at some point, so I thought today it would be helpful if I quietly offered a bit of practical advice as far as this golden rule is concerned. Here goes…
First of all, let me just say this: show, don’t tell, might be a very important and genuinely helpful rule, but it’s not a golden one. In fact if you attempted to apply this rule to your writing from start to finish it would be so plodding, so monumentally slow and stuffy that it would end up thicker than frozen mushy peas. It’s a rule to consider, and to apply, but not the whole time. You’ll see why in just a moment when I explain exactly what this maxim is trying to convey.
The idea of ‘show, don’t tell’ is that you should aim to furnish the reader with the clues which enable them to draw conclusions and create the scene, rather than bypassing this process and handing them a pre-drawn image that needs no imagination or participation. Okay, sounds great, but how do you accomplish that exactly? Well, here’s an example of a sentence which is telling, rather than showing:
“Charles felt angry, and switched on the light so that he could see his messy desk.”
Not exactly going to win any awards, but don’t worry, because I’m not. It’s just an example. Now let’s re-write that sentence by taking our ‘show don’t tell’ rule to the extreme:
“With his jaw clenched, Charles stormed across the room and hit the switch, revealing a cascade of paperwork strewn across the oak surface of his desk.”
Notice the difference? In the second example I didn’t tell you Charles was angry, you worked that out for yourself, because instead I showed you what he was doing, and allowed you to work out how he must be feeling, just as you would in real life. People don’t usually tell you they’re angry, they show you that through their actions, their behaviour and their body language. In the second example I also didn’t tell you that his desk was messy, I showed you what it looked like, and you worked out for yourself that it was messy.
Basically the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule can be summarised like this: don’t tell me Charles is angry, show me how he is behaving.
But I did mention earlier that this is a rule which should not be overused. Because if you only ever use this descriptive form of writing it will be impossible to speed up the pace. Sometimes it is better to quickly tell the reader something in order to get on to the next, more important scene. Telling me that there is a 300 pound boxing champion storming down the road like a bulldozer on caffeine, and who mistakenly believes I am having an affair with his wife, is probably not wise. Instead tell me there’s a big angry guy headed this way and to hide, quick! You can fill me in on any important details later.
So this rule is more of a guide. Try to employ it, and look for opportunities, but don’t force it into every sentence of your book.
The principle of this rule is really that readers like to be involved in the creative and imaginative process of the story telling. We like to pick out the clues, piece them together and create our own interpretation of the scene. If it’s all just handed to us on a plate then it becomes a very passive exercise, and not one which will engage your reader much.
It’s also a rule which helps you develop characters which are more real, more believable and more three dimensional. In real life we are constantly analysing people’s behaviour, interpreting their actions, reactions and mannerisms and drawing conclusions about how they feel, what they might say or do next and how we ought to behave or react. Taking this idea into storytelling makes sense, but when condensed to two verbs and a contraction it’s not awfully helpful.
Hopefully this blog post has cleared things up, but if you have any questions, need further clarification or have any comments or suggestions, please do leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to help.