“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
This quote by Chekhov may be familiar to some of you. It encapsulates perfectly one of the rules of good fiction writing: Show, don’t tell. Even my eight-year-old daughter knows what it means – they’re taught it at school. (I don’t remember writing lessons being so sophisticated when I was young. I think our teachers were just happy if we filled a page with words rather than scribbles.)
In my work as a proofreader and editor, I often see examples of authors telling too much and showing too little. It’s understandable. As writers, we want to tell stories. We want to explain what’s happening. We want to be clear, and we want our readers to understand.
Yes, our stories must be clear, and readers must understand. But they must also feel, and empathise, and experience. They must smell, and taste, and hear. This is, after all, why we read: to share in the human experience, to enter other worlds and other universes, to be moved and touched and changed.
When you show instead of tell, you’re using words to paint a picture. You’re creating a scene that readers can visualise and even feel a part of. This is what makes reading such a pleasure.
Consider the following two examples:
- The man was very nervous. He tried not to cry. He really didn’t want to go to the meeting.
- He shifted from one foot to the other, unable to keep still. His stomach was turning somersaults and he felt that telltale prickle behind his eyelids. He blinked furiously. Perhaps I could just make a run for it, he thought. No-one will miss me.
Which is more powerful? Which makes you want to read on? Which tells us something about this character; something that goes beyond simply what he looks like, or what he does?
In the second example, I didn’t tell you that this character was nervous, trying not to cry, and unhappy about going to the meeting. I showed you. I brought him to life a little more, and you heard him and saw him and perhaps even related to what he was feeling.
Showing more and telling less is one of the hardest skills for beginner writers to come to grips with. Here are a few pointers:
- Use dialogue. Instead of telling us that someone is feeling angry, let’s hear it straight from the horse’s mouth: “For pity’s sake, if you say ‘Show, don’t tell’ one more time I swear I’m going to scream!” (As opposed to: She was fed up with Patricia’s blogpost on Show, don’t tell.)
- Characterisation is the key. Get to know your characters intimately—so well that you can predict how they would react in any given situation. Then show us this, rather than simply telling us how they feel. For example, instead of saying She felt nervous, you could say, Her heart raced as she clenched and unclenched her fists, her palms clammy and cold.
- Use fewer adverbs and more active verbs: He paced the room instead of He walked around the room nervously.
- Appeal to the senses – give us smells and sounds and textures and tastes – not just words on a page.
- When describing characters, don’t use the Police Report description. (He had blonde hair and blue eyes. He was wearing a suit and brown shoes. He had a hat on. He was holding a plastic bag.) Bring him to life! Take basic descriptive information and paint a picture with it. (He stood clutching a plastic bag, his brown shoes and hat clashing with a suit that was clearly last year’s model. Blue eyes peered out from under a sandy fringe.)
- Use the right words – not necessarily lots of words. Overwriting is rampant in the writing world. Don’t use ten mediocre words when you could say the same thing in three or four great ones.
- Don’t overdo it. Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate to tell, rather than show. He walked into the room can work. (He sauntered around the corner and perambulated across the threshold of the large living area, a knowing smirk immediately casting a shadow across the expensive lounge suite and those sitting upon it usually does not.)