On Writing: Show, Don’t Tell

We’ve all heard that saying, and I’ve certainly run across the problem plenty of times while editing (there’s nothing more horrible than seeing pages of tell at the start of a story), but here’s the thing: it can happen to anyone. Even me!

Yesterday in my WIP, I finished Part 1 and moved to Part 2. That second part begins five years later. I started out well enough, with a scene between the MC and two minor characters talking, and then wrote three bloody paragraphs telling the reader what had transpired during those five intervening years.

MISTAKE! ERROR! What the fuck was I doing? 

I stopped cold the instant I realized what was happening and went to bed to sleep on it. At first, I had no idea how to relay that information without falling back on the dreaded tell. The next morning, however, I knew exactly how to change all that crap exposition into something far more dynamic and interesting.

Even experienced writers fall into traps when they aren’t thinking. We must be aware every minute we are writing; it’s all too easy to write pages and pages of shit before we realize it’s wrong, bad, and must be deleted or restructured.

Never, ever be afraid to delete stuff. I got rid of all the tell and replaced it with show, and the story is so much better now.


About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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17 Responses to On Writing: Show, Don’t Tell

  1. Yeah show don’t tell is pretty crucial, but I think there are ways of writing while showing, that can sacrifice suspense with great writing style.
    Never be afraid to delete stuff < that's more important than show don't tell in many ways. Only in the last few years have i got to grips with deleting at will.

    • Same here. Let’s face it: it hurts when you have to delete something. All those words vanishing into… well, wherever they go. Sometimes I hang on to the cut section for a while, thinking I might use it later, and then almost always, they need to go bye-bye.

  2. Sometimes, if I want to let the readers know what happened during a time-lapse, I use a ‘flash-back’ type scene and write it as if you were there when it happened.

    • Whatever works! But simply throwing info at the reader sucks, and I caught myself doing that.

      • Jaycee Edward says:

        I’d like to think I’d have caught it if/when I beta. Telling drives me nuts. As does the lazy way of getting around it which seems so popular lately: Having one character explain to the other what happened. Sorry…putting it into a long dialogue stream still isn’t showing.

  3. diannegray says:

    I’ve been trying to convince a friend to ‘show don’t tell’ in life through the things he says and does 😉
    In writing it’s a lot harder, but it really sucks when you go back to something you’ve written and find a few ‘tell’ paragraphs. Well done for spotting them.

  4. A.M.B. says:

    It’s impressive that you caught it so quickly! I’ve noticed a fair amount of “telling” in books lately (especially in historical fiction where they’re explaining too much of the history). It’s really annoying.

    • I tend to think about the day’s output overnight, and by morning I usually realize if I’ve gone off-track. Then I fix it. That’s not always fun, especially when I have to delete swaths of words. 😉

  5. schillingklaus says:

    I prefer telling over showing. Ergo.I tell deliberately and shamelessly, and will not be deterred from doing so by any amount of propaganda by the “show-don’t tell” mafia.

    • That’s your choice. Write what you want. But keep in mind many, many readers despise too much show. It slows the pace and is often boring to read, and if you write something, don’t you want people to read it?

  6. schillingklaus says:

    I only want a narrowly selected circle of readers, not the broad masses, to read it.

    • From Kristin Lamb’s blog post today: If you are a writer who has a goal of selling books it is wise to remember that audiences are not static. They change. Their tastes change with the times and we need to understand what is “trending” if we want to connect and entertain. Many new writers look to the classics for inspiration and there isn’t anything per se wrong with that, but we must reinvent the classics, not regurgitate them.

      Even if you look at the fashion trends, sure some styles “come back around” but they are not exact replicas of the past. They are a modernized version. But keep in mind that some fashion styles never come back. They’ve outlived their usefulness and belong in the past. Same with fiction.

      Story trends and fashions change along with the audience. For instance, Moby Dick spends an excruciatingly long time talking about whales, namely because the audience of the time probably had never seen one and never would. If we did this today? Sure, feel free to walk around in a literary gold-plated cod piece, but er…

      Yes, awkward.

      If you connect with those few readers, you’ve done your job! Congrats. 🙂

      But I’m guessing most authors want more than a small circle of devoted readers. Writing is hard work. It takes a lot of time. If given the choice to connect with ten readers or ten thousand, I’ll take the latter every time.

      Read the rest of Kristin’s blog post here.

  7. schillingklaus says:

    I’d take the ten over the ten thousands. I do not want to sell, for it is not possible for man to serve two masters, mammon and the muses, at the same time without putting one of them to shame.

    Moby Dick did not sell for several decades, so it is a pointless example.

    Whales serve multiple allegorical purposes; consequently, the long digressions of Melville’s narrator Ishmael are necessary, regardless of whether readers are familiar with whales or not. Realist literalists like Lamb are totally unable to see the metaphysical and religious dimensions of Moby Dick. Its digressions are nowhere near awkward, nor are the even longer digressions of Victor Hugo in Nôtre Dame de Paris.

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