Show, Don’t Tell

Two weeks ago, I decided that I wanted to explore various bits of well-known writing advice and try and articulate what each one means to me.

I’ll note now, and I should have noted this in the beginning that nothing in here is anything that I’d call a “Rule.” If you find that this works for you, that’s ok. If not, that’s ok too.

This week I’m looking at something you’ve almost certainly heard before:

“Show, Don’t Tell.”

What does this mean to me? It means that I should “Show” my readers the action that is going on in my story rather than “Tell” them what is going on.

Pretty clear huh?

I don’t think so either.

Part of “Showing” is rather than saying “Ariel felt mad.” I “Should–“

Sidebar: I used quotes around should because I’m not being prescriptive here

–I should show her being mad. There are several ways to do this:

Internal/External dialogue – This is pretty straightforward. Maybe Ariel shouts. Maybe she doesn’t say anything but she’s cursing in her thoughts.

Micro/Macro action – This, too is pretty straightforward.

Sidebar: I’m certain there’s a better term for this, but the bottom of my coffee cup this morning isn’t showing it to me…

Micro actions can be facial expressions: Lowering brows, tightening lips, etc. They can be expressed in body language: Clenching fists (not so subtle), crossing arms, closing off the posture, etc. Context is going to provide support for those actions.

Macro actions are much larger. Huge. Kinetic. Aggravated pacing, broad gestures, doing something with that clenched fist I mentioned above, breaking that marriage photo, etc.

Here’s the thing though: Showing and telling has effect on the big sliding scale in your story, labelled “Pacing.”

The Micro actions (for the most part – this isn’t an absolute) and internal dialogue tend to slow things down. What you’re doing when you use these things is inserting a break in the larger action and you’re zooming in.

Macro actions (Again – not an absolute) tend to speed things up. There’s energy there. Things are being done.

Neither one of these is better than the other. They’re tools – like a hammer. It’s what you do with them that matters.

Sounds pretty good right?

What about telling?

Telling is pretty straightforward. You as the writer are simply telling your reader that something has happened (or is happening, if you’re writing present tense).

Like Showing, Telling has an impact on that “Pacing” sliding scale. And it’s useful.

Unlike the real world, there are things that you as the writer can sidestep. That uneventful drive into work, for instance. You know the one: You arrive at the job and you have only vague memories of the trip you just completed.

Your reader doesn’t need to know that. Unless there’s something significant going on, it’s perfectly fine (and encouraged) to skip the boring parts.

But don’t think that telling is simply skipping the boring parts. Telling speeds things up. Take a look at your favorite fight scene. There’s both showing AND telling in there. It gives a sense of ebb and flow.

One of my favorite comparisons is between writing and cooking. These tools are like spices. Proper application leads to good things. Too much, or too little and you’ve got something that’ll be remembered to be sure, but not in the way you want.

In this way, writing is better than cooking, because you can edit a first draft. That burned bacon is forever…

Thanks for reading.

Be safe out there. Be Excellent to Each other.

I’ll see you on Thursday.

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