don't tell me show me
by Vivian Beck

Fiction is made up of scenes and description.  It is our job as authors to describe or tell the following.

  • What people or places, look and sound, and felt like?
  • What's going on inside their head?
  • What's happening along the way from one scene to the next.

Beginning writers often tell too much.  They will write dramatic scenes that are complicated and full of emotion, making the scene difficult to write.  This tempts them to take the easy way out by writing, "Sam and Marry had a fight," instead of showing the actual confrontation between the two characters.

Showing too much can also weaken your story.  If your characters go from one confrontation directly to another, your story will wear out your reader.  You will diffuse your work before the reader even has a chance to reach the climatic moment in your story.

A good writer will use both showing and telling, careful to keep a careful balance between the two in each scene.  A good rule is to cut back on the telling of your story.  At first, show more than you tell, then when you become more skilled in your craft, you can use both.

You are probably thinking, this is all fine and good, but how do I go about showing my story?  Use action and dialogue passages, weaving your characters thoughts in with the dialogue throughout the scene.  this will cut down on narrative and keep the thread of your story tight.

There are times when telling can enhance your story, and prepare the reader for the high moments.  Telling will slow down the action and give your reader time to "catch their breath" after an emotionally charged scene.  Be careful here, too much telling can make your reader lose track of the story, or heaven forbid, create  indifference.

When you revise your story, ask yourself the following question:

  • Am I describing too much of the action instead of letting it happen in fully executed scenes?
  • Am I telling too much?  Can I change the narrative to dialogue exchanges between characters, or put my character in action in some other way?  (Note:  If you have to ask this question, then the answer is, you are.)

Try to delete narrative that occurs between scenes, particularly when you find yourself describing your character getting up from bed, dressing, driving a car, or going somewhere.

Watch movies.  Study the characters' actions on screen.  You will see that it is not necessary to show everything.  Notice how the movie cuts from one scene to another, eliminating all excess and unnecessary action.  Your reader really does not want to know every little thing your character does in their spare time.  

Never tell something when you can show it.  For example, if you have a character who is always lethargic in the morning, don't say he/she has a hard time waking up.  Instead, show the reader.  You could have the character stumbling out of a rumpled bed, tripping over their slippers, then staggering down the hall.  Get the picture?  Or, if you have two characters who hate each other's guts, don't tell the reader that Ken and Fred hate each other, let the reader see them fighting.

Even after you have mastered your craft, you will find there's always more work to do.  Hemingway revised the first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea, thirty-seven times.  Writing is revising, again, and again, and again.  Keep on writing until you get the words just right.

Happy writing!

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COPYRIGHT © 2017 Vivian Beck