The basics of show don’t tell
Hi all; Julie here! Today’s post goes back to basics with a discussion of Show Don’t Tell. (For other approaches to this rule, you can read JJ’s piece on balancing the mix of showing and telling, Pub Crawl alum Susan Dennard’s post on using showing and telling on macro and micro levels, and Kat’s approach to when to show and when to tell.) There are few rules of craft that can be applied to a draft that will lift the level of the writing with the same effect as this simple rule. With every first draft I write, I find I fall into the lazy habit of telling, and with each revision, I look for places I can show more. Some basic rules are basics for good reason.
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Here’s Why Telling Is Just As Important As Showing
The phrase “show, don’t tell” is a popular one, insisting that showing is always the superior form of writing, but some persuasive voices warn against this line of thinking:
Needless to say, many great novelists combine ‘dramatic’ showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration… the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out.
More often than not, preference is given to showing something over telling something, even if it isn’t the best approach. Writers tend to look at showing and telling in “black or white” / “good or bad” terms … but it’s not that simple.
It’s also not that hard. Let’s have a look at how you can choose between showing and telling, and how you can strike a balance between the two to avoid becoming a show-it-all writer. But, before we do this, there is one thing you need to keep in mind:
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Showing vs. Telling Indicators
It’s the first rule of writing, and for good reason.
In a nutshell, showing is about using description and action to help the reader experience the story. Telling is when the author summarizes or uses exposition to simply tell the reader what is happening.
John was sad to see his girlfriend leave.
John wiped tears down his face as he watched his girlfriend board the plane.
Here’s a longer example:
The house was creepy.
Only a single dim candle lit the room. The house smelled like dust and rotting wood, and something faintly metallic that made John think of blood. Stuffed animals were mounted around the room: a wild-eyed buck, a grizzly frozen in fury, a screech owl with sharp yellow talons.
In both examples, showing makes the writing vivid and more descriptive. Showing also helps readers experience the story by allowing them to interpret the descriptions of places, actions, and scenes.
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