(This article originally appeared on BridgetMcKenna.com.)
You may already know I wrote a book called The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers, available at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.au, and all Amazon stores everywhere, and that I’ll love you forever if you buy a copy. Full disclosure: I wrote the book to make money.
I also wrote the book to help writers. Most of the writers I know really like to help other writers, and the rest can be ignored for our present purposes. I’ve participated in writers’ workshops and created and taught my own workshops for the better part of 30 years. I’ve performed major and minor surgery on quite a few novels and stories in my career as an editor, and along the way I discovered the same mistakes and missteps in beginners’ manuscripts over and over again. I wrote up long, teachy (which is totally a word now) articles to give to my clients to demonstrate better ways—in my opinion—to create memorable characters, narrative, dialogue, plots, and storylines.
I also wrote an article on the kinds of errors, hesitations, filler words, fish heads, and verbal crutches that were far too common in the manuscripts I was seeing from my clients (and sometimes in those of writers old enough and good enough to know better). I added such writerly faux pas as passive voice, point-of-view violations, pacing, and many other things that don’t begin with P, and eventually created the above-linked Little Book. I personally think that if you write—even if you don’t consider yourself a beginner—you should own a copy. But then I would think that. And even if you never shell out the $4.99, we can still talk. Can we talk? Okay.
In the interests of providing what I hope will be useful tips for writers, I’m going to be selecting advice from The Little Book of Self-Editing and expanding upon it here. And I’m getting this one out of the way first.
That’s right...it’s The Most Hated Writing Advice Ever.
Why, oh why, you may be asking yourself, do people keep saying “Show, don’t tell?” Is that even good advice? Didn’t you just read an interview with a famous author who said that was all bullshit anyway?*
What the holy frak does “Show, don’t tell” even mean?
I’m really glad you asked.
Remember Show and Tell? I rocked that class. I swear, if education had consisted of nothing else, I’d have sailed through with high honors and none of those embarrassing notes to my Mom. For the first few years of my early educational career, the night before Show and Tell day I’d be all over the house looking for some fascinating object with which to entertain my classmates and earn their admiration. I was never the popular kid, I was usually the new kid, and I was pretty nearly always the weird kid, but many of my earliest experiences of peer acceptance stemmed from successfully navigating the shoals of Show and Tell.
I learned pretty quickly that standing up in front of the class and telling them what you did on your summer holidays was not going to fascinate the average seven year old, but that anything you could bring to your audience that could be seen or heard or touched or smelled (I brought my dog once, who covered all those bases nicely) commanded their attention far better than reciting secondhand accounts of an overnight trip to the lake. The kids at North Ninth Street School, or Carlsbad Elementary, or wherever I’d landed recently, didn’t want to listen to yet more blah-blah from the front of the room; they wanted to experience something via their own senses.
What does this mean to your writing? Well, imagine your reading audience has something in common with those bored second graders. Imagine they’ll lose interest in direct proportion to the amount of time you spend relating, reporting, or telling them rather than giving them a direct sensory experience of your story. And really? If you don’t want to read any further? I’ll understand. Just remember that anything that gets in the way of delivering a direct sensory experience is what your teacher or editor is marking up and commenting with “Show, don’t tell!”
This, by the way—that headline right above these words —is what it all boils down to. Give the readers the most direct experience possible. It really is that simple. The more you get in your own way with unnecessary words that distance the reader from that direct connection with the action of your story, the more you’re telling. Telling denies the reader the experience of story in favor of reporting something to them instead.
What follows are some ways that telling happens, often without us ever being aware it has. I didn’t make these examples up, but I did change enough words to protect the guilty.
What he saw, heard, observed, noticed, felt, etc.
If the reader can experience a character seeing, hearing, observing, noticing, feeling, or knowing something, don’t point it out. Get inside and write the experience as it happens. Moving one step back to report what happens is not only telling, it’s missing an opportunity to engage the reader's senses and emotions.
Telling: He saw a ray of sunlight piercing the clouds.
Showing: Sunlight pierced the clouds.
Telling: He knew Sharona was lying through her teeth.
Showing: Sharona was lying through her teeth.
- Don’t TELL the reader that the character saw, heard, felt, or noticed something. SHOW what they saw, etc. If the character experiences it directly, so will the reader.
What Happens vs. What Doesn’t Happen
The reader can only see what happens, so don’t bother telling them what didn’t happen.
Telling: Pete didn’t hesitate, but jumped for the train.
Showing: Pete jumped for the train.
Telling: Carrie tried to right herself.
Showing: Carrie lifted herself to one knee, then collapsed back onto the carpet.
Telling: Ellen didn’t answer him, but continued to stare out the window.
Showing: Ellen continued to stare out the window.
- Don’t TELL what’s beginning, trying, or failing to happen. Forget what DIDN’T happen. SHOW what’s actually happening.
One of the most egregious ways of telling is to report a character’s emotions. You want to talk about removing the reader from the experience? This is how you do it. Only don't do it.
Telling: Mercy looked sad.
What was Mercy doing that led the POV character to conclude that she “looked sad?” What can you show the reader?
Showing: Mercy looked away and sighed. She put on a half-smile, then abandoned it.
Telling: Karl felt sad.
What does “feeling sad” feel like? What are the sensations? Where does Karl feel them?
Showing: Sorrow made an empty place in Karl’s chest. He ached. His eyes stung with tears he refused to cry.
- Don’t report emotions; get inside and write what emotions DO so that your reader can experience them.
Are you wasting words describing what isn’t happening instead of showing what is?
- Rewrite to narrate what the character is actually experiencing. Keep the reader immersed in the action.
Are you letting your readers directly experience what the POV character sees, hears, or feels, or are you telling them that he’s having an experience?
- Rewrite with the intention of showing what’s happening to provide a direct and immediate experience for your readers.
Are you reporting emotions instead of letting the reader discern them based on character action?
- Rewrite to show what is observable with the senses. Trust the reader to get it.
*You may indeed have read a recent mini-interview with Lee Child, in which he stated that "Show, don’t tell" was silly advice. Mr. Child—whom I consider an excellent writer and storyteller—apparently had the idea that showing meant something like a character looking at themselves in a mirror and describing themselves. That is, more often than not, pretty silly. A reading of the opening paragraphs of Mr. Child’s first novel illustrates that he has had a perfectly good grasp of the concept of showing for a great many years and writes some kick-ass narrative without having to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the terminology, so I’ll give him a pass on the mirror thing.