Show, Don’t Tell

‘Show, don’t tell.’

I don’t know about you, but this has to just about top the charts for Most Common Piece of Advice Spouted Without Ever Being Defined. I’m going to work on that today – in a bit. Bear with me while I meander my way to my point 😉

So, I see this advice given to beginner writers more than just about anything else. Does this make it the most common mistake, if people feel such an overwhelming need to point it out? I have no evidence either way, but honestly – at least in the early stages of a writer’s career – I suspect so. Why is that?

Quite randomly, and without recalling how I managed to do it, I’ve been subscribed to this cheery little newsletter for some months now. Every now and than it pops up in my inbox, I skim it, and delete it without too much ado. It’s called Seven Steps to Writing Success, and it’s basically advertising for a program by the same name that’s sold as a resource for teachers teaching creative writing to primary school students.

Why am I telling you this? Because it highlights one important factor for me: Telling is what beginner writers (of all ages, but especially young children) do. The newsletter focuses on ways to get children to move beyond simple telling and move into the realm of showing – the realm of storytelling.

Let’s take a look at my own first stories, which you can find right here for your own amusement 🙂 Aside from the myriad other problems with this story, the main thing to notice is its brevity – and it’s brief because it’s 99% tell.

Here’s a little secret, and I believe from personal experience that it’s why most children tell their stories rather than showing them: showing takes longer.

And here’s another little secret, based on personal experience: people are impatient.

At 2am, when you’re struggling with that awful little story that you swore black and blue you’d finish tonight before you went to bed, when you sense that the end is very nearly in sight and you just want it to be over and finished and have the satisfaction of slamming shut the notebook or throwing down the keyboard and screaming ‘It’s done!’, it can get very tempting to resort to telling. Because it’s quicker, remember? You get to the same destination in far less words, and therefore less time. (It’s also tempting to do this at less extreme times than 2am, but for now I’ll fantasise that we’re all Good Little Writers who only resort to extreme measures like telling in the most dire of circumstances.)

So why is this such a bad thing? It gets the draft done, right?

Right. So long as you remember in editing that telling is often the kiss of death for the reader’s attention span. Telliness can kill an otherwise excellent story and make it die a long and boring death while the reader writhes on the ground in pain…. Er, no, whoops. That’s zombies O:)

(By the way, if you’re beginning to get the impression that a lot of things can kill stories – sorry, you’re absolutely correct. Why else do you think everyone who ever dreamed of writing a book hasn’t? Only those who really mean it tough it out to the bitter and glorious end.)

Okay, so we know telling is Evil and is to be Avoided At All Costs. We know it’s okay in first drafts, because let’s face it, it gets the dang thing done, but that it must be Hunted Down and Destroyed in edits. But… uh, what is it?

What does showing look like, if it isn’t telling? Merc has a great article on this exact topic right here, but I’m going to treat you all with my own explanation 😉 Oh stop groaning, I can hear you from here 😐

Let’s take this fabulous little paragraph from my Elnac story:

At last they were off and travelling to the falls. They had to go around the Beaver’s pond, then to the big pond which the waterfall ran into. There, under the waterfall in the cavern were their friends.

This paragraph is almost entirely tell, because instead of letting us as the reader experience the events of the story, it just summarises them for us. It reads like an outline, not like a story. That’s characteristic of telling: if it feels like the story is just skimming over things and not letting you actually envisage them, it’s a pretty big clue that it might be telling. So, let’s try a quick rewrite, keeping it short for the sake of space and trying to preserve the childlike tone.

At last William was ready.
“Finally,” said Danny.
William ignored him and strode outside. Danny grabbed his scarf and raced to keep up – William’s legs were a lot longer than his and he had to practically run.
The path sloped gently up to the pond made by the Beaver’s dam, and Danny didn’t mind too much that he had to run. The air was fresh and clean, just like after rain, and the sun shone warm and bright. Birds twittered in the trees, and before long his nose was twitching at the smell of woodsmoke.

I’m going to leave it there, but you see the point. I’ve just turned one and half sentences into four paragraphs – and I could keep going. Actually, I could keep going, and going, and going, and going…

Which brings up another important point: you can’t – and shouldn’t – show everything. This relates both to pace and significance. There are articles on both of these, but as a quick refresher in faster paced sections you want to be moving quicker, so you can afford to leave out a bit of that description, and by contrast you can slow the pace down by expanding the amount of detail that you show. Significance is about which details need to be told in order for the story to advance and feel real, and which you can leave to the reader’s imagination.

As one final note (yes, breath a sigh of relief, we’re nearly done), I’ll draw your attention back to the first Writerly Advice article. I left you with a promise to discuss passive writing – and in a round about way, I’ve done just that. ‘Was’, that poor little auxiliary that cops so much flak, may not always indicate passive voice, but it sure as heck indicates passive writing with a fair degree of accuracy.

Hang on, wait a moment! I hear you cry. We’re talking about showing, here, not passive writing!

I smile.

My dears, what is telling if not passive writing, and showing if not active? And here’s another little clue about how this all fits together – it’s pretty difficult to ‘show’ and use ‘was’.

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