Show and Tell

One of the best pieces of writing advice is “Show, don’t tell”. For a tiny example, here is telling:

Bob was sad.

And showing:

Bob swallowed hard, but the tears spilled over all the same.

The second shows character (he is trying to resist crying, and failing) and is unique to Bob. That makes it more interesting. It also draws in the reader with sensory detail (we see the tears).

The same principle applies on a much grander scale. Some examples of bad writing include:

Bob was tough. (No! Show him being tough with an entire scene. And then again whenever a situation is likely to bring out his toughness.)

Bob grew up poor. (Generally this is best shown by his actions – does he always carefully count and recount his change? Does he wear his Armani suits until they literally wear out?)

And so on.

You’ll notice “show, don’t tell” ups your word count by a huge amount (it’s very much something you fix in editing, rather than stopping every three seconds in your first draft to ask, “But HOW is he sad?”)

It IS possible, however, to show too much. It’s unlikely anyone cares exactly what colour your heroine’s hair is (you can say “mousy” instead of “brown” if you like – or leave the hair colour to the imagination), especially if you’ve just spent a paragraph each on the exact shade of her eyes and the exact shade of her dress. It’s very unlikely anyone cares about the history of the taxi driver who takes her to the airport (unless he’s integral to the plot, interesting, AND the taxi conversation shows the heroine’s character or brings up a central conflict).

Today’s article link is to Lynn Price at the Behler blog, who writes:

The biggest problem I see is authors who don’t know when and how to use show. There are plenty of times when a character can simply cross a room without it taking up five paragraphs. Same for the piece of cake. The trick is to utilize show at the right time…when the scene allows for it.

6 thoughts on “Show and Tell

  1. Huzzah for the recognition that when people make a suggestion, they don’t mean “do it all the time or you’re a terrible writer/person!”.

  2. Uhm, I’m confused… Shouldn’t it be around the other way in the example. Bob is sad seems to be telling, not showing…. Either that or I’m reading it wrong.

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