Sunday, 5 December 2021

Show Don't Tell - What it Means

This is probably the least understood phrase for new writers – probably because it seems to go against logic. Writers tell stories right? No. Good writers show stories.

To me there’s really only one thing you need to remember when it comes to showing your stories, and that is a quote from Graham Masterton. He said:

Don’t tell your story. Be there.”

Basically, it doesn’t matter how good your writing is. If you’re telling the story you are distancing your reader from it. Here’s an example of telling:

Jason knew he had to go to the Dentist. His teeth hurt so much that he told his mother about it. She suggested he call Dr Evans, a man who had looked after the family’s teeth for years. He made the call and arranged to be at Dr Evans surgery at three o clock. That would give him plenty of time to do a few errands – and be back in time for tea.

This is completely passive because the information is being related from the omniscient, non-personal viewpoint. In order to ‘show’ the story you need to become the character of Jason – and get him to relate the story, unfolding it in real time. Like this.

Jason woke at seven thirty. His jaw felt as though someone had kicked it during the night. He poked his tongue around a sensitive area in his mouth. Ouch. It felt almost raw. He got up and trundled down the stairs to breakfast.

“My goodness, Jason, you look awful,” his mother said. “What on earth is the matter?”

“My tooth hurts something terrible, Mum.” Jason used a finger to prod around the interior of his mouth. He squinted.

“Call Dr Evans. He’ll know what to do. Go on, call him now.”

Jason picked up the phone and dialled a number on the refrigerator door.

“Hello? I’d like to make an appointment…"

And so on.

Showing is achieved by taking each story event and relating it as though it were a scene in a movie. Instead of merely telling the reader what action and drama took place, you need to put yourself in the scene and explain what the characters are experiencing – as the story unfolds.

You do this with dialogue and being specific about emotions like pain, sorrow, love, whatever. Instead of saying ‘he felt pain’, you need to say where the pain is and of what type. Making bland generalizations about a character’s motivation is not enough.

Your reader wants specifics – they want to feel as though they’re actually inside the head of the characters – experiencing their world, their thoughts and their emotions.

Whenever you look at your writing, ask yourself. Is this telling, or showing?

Imagine that you have to explain to a film or TV director what you need to get a particular scene across. The easiest way to do that is to show him. You would first show him the location, the characters inhabiting that space and then write down the necessary dialogue.

If you copy this same technique to use in novel and short story writing, you won’t go far wrong.

Of course some exposition and telling is good for pacing – you can’t have your book reading exactly like a screenplay after all. However, you should be aiming for a balance of 5 to 1. Show four fifths of the time and tell just one fifth.

As an exercise – indeed as any editing process – you need to look at every sentence you write and try re-writing it – deliberately tightening it. Remember, nothing is sacred, no matter how well written.

If you can create more scenes that show rather than tell, your writing will always work better for a reader.

Gone are the days when authors can bore their readers with long passages of exposition and passive prose.

Shame really – it’s much easier to write like that!

Showing requires discipline – and going that extra mile.

The good part is that publishers and readers reward you for doing that work – by buying more of your books!

Keep Writing!

© Rob Parnell