A Constant Concern: “Show, Don’t Tell”

As a fiction writer, you know that you’re supposed to show things like emotions and responses in your writing, rather than tell the reader how your characters reacted. Don’t just list facts or events (“…and then this happened and then that happened…”), but instead, bring scenes to life by showing the characters living through those events.

He Was Sad

Sadness in La Recoleta

Sadness can be described, not stated (Photo courtesy Flickr user wallygrom)

For example, if you’ve got a character who’s just received some bad news, you don’t generally write, “He was deeply saddened.” Rather, you write something like this:

He dropped the letter, unnoticed, and leaned heavily on his hands on the table. Closing his eyes, he bowed his head and swallowed a couple of times, hard, his throat working. When at last he raised moist eyes to his silent companion, he rasped, ‘She’s gone.’

Doing it this way, you help the reader see the entire scene and live through it with the character. This is a living, breathing man going through an experience right before your eyes. Saying merely, “He was deeply saddened” is more of a “documentary” way of doing things. You’re just reporting a fact, the same way you’d say, “Gravity exists.” But there’s no life to it — which is what you want when you write fiction rather than a documentary.

Conversational “Showing”

Naturally, in a novel or other story, you will also write narrative. And you do give factual information when you describe events as they occur. So it’s not all “showing,” since much of this narrative is inevitably “telling.” But even then, you can make many of these narrations more alive in various ways. For example, you could describe the scenery in the area surrounding your story location through the eyes of someone viewing it through a train window. All the while interspersing personal reactions to it, through conversation or through the character’s thoughts.

Train Window

Describe scenery from a traveller's viewpoint (Photo courtesy Flickr user calculat0r)

Another way to keep from doing too much “telling” is to introduce needed information through conversations between characters. As they discuss what they should do next, or make introductions, etc., they can casually refer to information the reader needs to know. Either they supply all the information themselves, or they make a reference with some details, and then the narrator goes on to add more information.

“Tell Me Again Why…”

But the “conversational” tactic can be used ridiculously too. You need to keep in mind how people really talk, and whether they sound like a story narrator when they chat with friends. If characters don’t sound the way human beings would really talk in the situation they’re in, this injection of information sounds much worse than if the narrator just went ahead and described it. Here’s an example of what I mean:

“She wants this coffee house to be a premier attraction for tourists who visit this area,” Leah said.

“And tell me again why we got dragged into the project?” asked Ruth.

Leah glanced at her companion, a smile now dancing on her lovely, heart-shaped face that had been freshened very lightly by a dab of White Diamonds perfume. “Because her interior decorator walked out two weeks ago, and everyone else is booked solid till after the holidays.”

“You mean everyone with qualifications,” Ruth laughed. Her slender, well-manicured fingers shoved a lock of fine red hair behind one ear, before she straightened her form-fitting sweater.

“Now now,” Leah chided, “we both have plenty of experience. I own the local tea specialty shop, and you own a vintage china shop.”

This is similar to some dialogue that I recently read at the beginning of a novel. And even this small bit of writing is packed full of misuses of the “Show, don’t Tell” idea.

If you ever read a character saying, “Tell me again why…,” that’s probably your cue to run screaming from the room. This is frequently a bad writer’s way of injecting information that they don’t know how to include otherwise. This device usually involves one character telling another character something they both already know, but which they must rehearse again so the reader will know it too.

This could have been handled another way that would have been just as easy, and would have sounded much more natural:

“It’s too bad her interior decorator had to ditch the project,” Ruth grumbled.

“Well, it’s not like her mother broke her hip on purpose,” Leah reasoned. “It can take weeks to make arrangements for assisted living, so she didn’t really have a choice.”

That easily solves the problem of the writer trying to “show” the reader this information by having Leah tell Ruth what she already knew.

Tell Me What I Already Know, Part Two

But speaking of that, there’s an even more ridiculous example. Does Ruth really not know that Leah owns a tea shop and she herself owns a vintage china shop? Does she need reminding of these things, to justify why she and Leah are now helping with this project?

No. It’s the reader who doesn’t know. But there are so many other ways of letting the reader find out. Here’s just one of them:

“I really think I learned a lot,” Leah mused, “when I first opened my tea shop and had to decorate it.” She added, with a smile at her friend, “And everyone says it’s the way you create your displays in your china shop that makes them stop in and buy. So I think we’re more than qualified.”

Now Leah is not pseudo-informing Ruth who owns what, so the reader can “eavesdrop” on the information. Now she really is talking about their qualifications, and the mention of the ownership of their respective shops is more of an incidental illustration. The conversation flows much more humanly.

Piling on Descriptive Details

Day One Hundred and Thirty Nine - Perfume Bottle

Save the perfume detail for later (Photo courtesy Flickr user Yortw)

There’s still an instance of “telling” rather than “showing” in the main example, above. Leah is described as having a “lovely, heart-shaped face that had been freshened very lightly by a dab of White Diamonds perfume.” First of all, since this is less than a page into the novel, the reader really doesn’t need to know what perfume Leah is wearing, or even that she’s wearing perfume at all. Save that for her lunch the next day, with her boyfriend. Perhaps after he kisses her hello, he can breathe deeply and say, “Chanel?” To which she replies, “White Diamonds. It’s my current favorite perfume.”

And the writer is telling the reader that Leah is “lovely.” Here’s where the reader should deduce that fact from how people around Leah respond to her. Again, this could have been saved for the boyfriend lunch. This is akin to the “He was saddened” documentary detail.

Other details in the example were fine, but perhaps crammed too thickly into a couple of paragraphs. The writer is obviously trying to establish, with some speed, who these characters are, what they look like, and what they own. But these details can be worked gradually into the conversation and the narrative. There’s really not that much rush.

The context is important too. These two women are about to witness a murder. The brand of perfume Leah is wearing is probably not an important detail to insert just here. And Ruth’s “fine red hair” could even be mentioned later, while the two are sitting on a nearby step as police and reporters are milling about the crime scene. Or if the red hair needs to be mentioned early, save the “form-fitting sweater” for the later scene when it’s getting cold outside and this is all Ruth is wearing.

Be Judicious, and Show. Don’t Tell.

It takes some practice to learn how to manipulate details and to know when you should insert them. But even more important than that is the imperative to show the reader what’s happening as much as possible, rather than tell him or her. When a character is reacting, show the reaction — don’t tell the reader what it was. When describing a character, yes, use adjectives and other descriptive terms — but don’t evaluate. (“Lovely” is the writer’s evaluative opinion about a character’s looks; “fine red hair” is descriptive.)

And if you love your characters and want to write the best book possible, never, ever use the “Tell me again why…” device. It does damage to the integrity (and intelligence!) of your characters. And it may be insulting to the intelligence of your readers as well.

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