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Show, Don't Tell

Show, Don’t Tell (#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop)

Show, Don’t Tell is part of the September #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. Click here to find other blogs participating in the Hop and read some great writing advice! Or follow the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop on Twitter, or visit our Pinterest board.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve discussed two oft-quoted pieces of writing advice (or bad writing advice, depending on who you ask):

I’ve covered what each phrase means, and how you can apply it to editing your manuscript. Today I’m going to cover another common writing tip: Show, Don’t Tell, which is one of the major rules of modern fiction (whether contemporary or historical, genre or literary).

But what does ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Mean?

Telling a story is the classic way of structuring a novel—think Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, or Charles Dickens. They told their stories as the narrator, able to see into the minds of all the characters at once.

But telling is now considered outdated by publishers, and readers. Modern readers don’t need pages describing a jungle, a panther, and how a panther moves through the jungle. We’ve seen that on the Discovery Channel.

Modern fiction writing relies on showing the story through a series of scenes. We need to show our reader the scene, rather than telling them about the scene. We need to allow readers to watch and experience the story for themselves.

This isn’t new. Sol Stein said this in 1999:

A writer who wants to be read by contemporary audiences … will find it useful to study through example the differences between narrative summary and immediate scene. Keep in mind that narrative summary is telling and immediate scene is showing.

So instead of telling the reader she was frightened at the noise in the dark basement, let us hear the noise and show us her reactions—her conscious actions, her unconscious visceral reactions, and her internal monologue:

There was a thump in the basement, a pause, then scrapes and scratches as though something—or someone—was moving furniture across the wooden floor. Then steps. Footsteps. Climbing the stairs. She froze in place as her heart beat in time to the heavy footsteps, da-dum, da-dum, he-is com-ing. Where could she hide?

As Renni Browne and Dave King say:

You want to draw your readers into the world you’ve created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can’t do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there.

We need to show the action (and reaction) that relates to the main plot and subplots. We need to show the action and reaction that impacts on the character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts—their character arc.

But we don’t need to show everything.

I’ve yet to read a novel where a character visits the bathroom (to use the American euphemism). This is a good thing. We know the characters must need to visit the bathroom on occasion. But it’s detail we rarely need.

Narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing … Just make sure you don’t use it when you should be showing rather than telling.

We can tell the transitions between scenes. If scene A takes place at home, and scene B takes place in the office, we don’t need to show every detail of how our character gets from A to B—unless it’s directly relevant to the plot, or to the character’s personal arc.

This comes back to the principle of Chekov’s gun, which I touched on last week:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

Readers know and understand this principle, even if they can’t articulate it:

  • We know that if a novel shows character scrabbling for her car keys in the dark of the parking garage, there will be someone waiting behind her car (or in the car).
  • We know that if the novel shows character using her car key to open the car remotely, there will be a bomb in the car.
  • We know that if the character is shown squeezing toothpaste onto a toothbrush and cleaning her teeth, that there’s either something nasty in the tube of toothpaste, or someone has cleaned the toilet with the toothbrush.

There has to be a reason for any detail. If there is no reason to show the detail, that’s when you tell. We don’t want to disappoint our readers by leading them to believe something is important when it isn’t.

Next week I’m going to share three ways authors tell when they should be showing, and how to fix those “tells”.

What questions do you have about Show, Don’t Tell?

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15 comments

  1. Louise says:

    Some great tips 🙂
    I love the Chekov’s gun principle. Nowadays, as much as I sometimes want to go into detail, I try to only do so if it’s relevant to plot!

    • Iola says:

      I’ve had to cut a lot of irrelevant detail out of my current manuscript. It wasn’t bad writing – it was just backstory that wasn’t moving the plot forward. There are a couple of sentences that I can drop in at relevant points, but the rest can go.

      I’m planning a post on Chekov’s Gun in a couple of weeks 🙂

  2. Interesting summary. This is something most writers struggle with when they first start writing. The trick is to know what’s helping the story and what’s not. Always something to think about.

    • Iola says:

      Exactly! But it can be hard as the writer to know what is helping, what isn’t, and what we thought we’d put in but didn’t. Or is that just me?

  3. So well articulated, Iola. I really do try to find the balance with narrative summary, I do! But I’m not sure I’ve mastered this skill yet. At times, I think I’ve got it, and then I get a critique asking why I’ve summarized something in two sentences rather than showing it. More reflection is needed on my part. Thanks for this post!

    • Iola says:

      Sometimes what’s needed is to summarise something in two sentences (e.g. if you’ve already shown it, and this is Character A explaining what happened to Character B). The important thing is to ask the question: was there a reason, or did you write these two sentences in draft, meaning to come back and expand them into two pages later, but forgot?

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. It actually seems like there are two sides to showing and telling. The immediate scene (showing) versus narrative summary (telling) is the side I think most people don’t know about. But the whole “don’t tell my the moon is shining, show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass” thing is a separate problem entirely, but still called by the same name. I never really realized this, thank you!

    • Iola says:

      Great point! One of my eternal frustrations with writing and writing craft is that different people use the same term to describe different things (or vice versa)! It’s no wonder we get confused.

  5. Lupa says:

    We know that if a character opens the bathroom mirror, there will be a reflection of something evil standing behind her when she closes said mirror.
    I had to do that after reading about the toothpaste ;p
    But a great dissection of show vs. tell. It made me think about why so many readers of our time watch TV adaptations instead of reading classic literature. But I think the Tell is that lovely thing that has always drawn me to the classics. I was lamenting to my brother just the other day about how people don’t write the way they used to anymore. At the same time, I would have to admit that as a writer, I’m more of an action-and-dialogues kind of author myself – descriptive imagery is something that I only dream of having the patience to write. Which explains our readers’ level of patience in a nutshell, I guess. Sigh…

    • Iola says:

      An evil face in the mirror … an excellent example!

      The classics have earned their place in history, but most modern publishers wouldn’t consider something in the same style. I guess one of the benefits of self-publishing is that if you want to write and publish hundreds of pages of telling, you can. But finding readers … that could be harder.

      I’m certainly more of an action-and-dialogue kind of writer, and reader. I find the older I get (and the more I learn about good writing), the less patience I have for stories that take too long to get going.

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