Show, don’t tell

I’m sure you’ve heard this before: “Show, don’t tell!” If you do a writing course, they’ll probably throw this at you at least ten times before you’re done. But, the funny thing is, what it really means hardly ever comes across. I kept looking at their examples and I felt like I had learned nothing.

Then came the fateful day when Zara asked me to have a look at her work.

My ah-hah! moment had arrived. Her manuscript was incredibly short but there was a lot going on. And all I could think was: But I want to see these things happening. Almost everything was in narrative.

Full of trepidation at having to tell a budding writer that she needed to change nearly everything she had written, I decided to take a different angle. I told her “We are going to go through the story together and try and improve things here and there. You will see, your word count will go up tremendously!”

At first, it felt like I had sentenced myself to the most frustrating experience you could possibly have with another writer…but it was the exact opposite.

One paragraph describing a scene turned into almost two pages of action and dialogue. And, as we went, it just kept growing. It was amazing!

How to do it:

Now, this post would be utterly useless if you got only this far, so, I’m going to give you what you really need – proper examples* of what “show, don’t tell” really means.

Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him. It was so bad, in fact, that his own mother had told him that he was allowed to come by only if he had grandchildren to present her with. Not that he’d ever have any, his wife left him after exactly one week of matrimonial blisters.

This (↑) will be our “tell” piece.

Show, don’t tell

Even though the piece may be humorous, there is a long way to go before it turns into something that shows. Let’s start with sentence one. Sure, it’s nice and concise…but, let me ask you this, which of the following is more entertaining now?

Tell:
Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him.

Do you feel engaged after this piece? Do you feel like you know what could be going on now?

Show:
“He strangled my chicken for crowing this morning!”
“Not General Cockadoodle? The General’s cry was how I woke up in time to get the kids ready for school!”
“Not only that, he put poison in the carcass and threw it over the neighbours’ fence to kill their dog. They’re at the vet right now, pumping the poor pooch’s stomach.””I didn’t think it was possible but I hate him even more now.”
“Maybe we should begin a ‘Gamm’s karma brigade’. We could TP his house to start with.”
They snickered.

Do you think Gamm might be a misunderstood individual after reading the Show piece? The Tell sentence could have started a story for a guy with bad luck and rotten timing. But the Show piece gave you some insight into what kind of jerk he really is.

Should I go on?

Different levels of importance

How much you write really depends on the focus of your story. Are you telling the story of Gamm, the jerk, and how he redeemed himself? Are you telling the story of Mrs Green and how she got even? Or maybe Gamm is just a supporting character in two or three chapters?

You really don’t have to waste time if the character isn’t that important.

Tell:
Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him.

Show:
He’s the main character
Gamm snickered inwardly as he stuffed the rat poison down the stupid cockerel’s gullet. Two birds with one stone. No more howling at night and no more ungodly crowing before dawn.
He stood on his toes to peer over into the yard where the mongrel lived.
Two brown eyes looked up at him. The dog gave a little bark.
“Here, you rat bastard. I have a treat for you. It’s to die for.”

He watched long enough to make sure the dog took a second bite.
Mrs Green is the main character
“He strangled my chicken for crowing this morning!” Janet Green was gesticulating sharply as she spoke.
“Not General Cockadoodle?” Vanessa winced. It really did feel like an inevitability. Then it occurred to her. “The General’s cry was how I woke up in time to get the kids ready for school!”
Janet’s curls bounced with her curt nod. Her face was pinched and blotchy. “Not only that, he put poison in the carcass and threw it over the neighbours’ fence to kill their dog. They’re at the vet right now, pumping the poor pooch’s stomach.”
“I didn’t think it was possible but I hate him even more now.”
They stood for a moment in a companionable angry silence.
“Maybe we should begin a ‘Gamm’s karma brigade’. We could TP his house to start with,” Vanessa said darkly.
They snickered.

Gamm appears for 3 chapters only
“Isn’t Gamm that guy that strangled the chicken and then poisoned a dog with it?”

“Yeah, jerks work hard to keep up with his level of douche baggery. His own mother won’t let him visit. Said he can come by if he manages to sire grandchildren for her.”
“Like any woman would let him close enough to get pregnant!”
They snickered.

Is he really?

One of my writer friends, Richard, recently told me about reading a book that told instead of showing that made him exclaim: “Really? I don’t believe you!” so many times that his wife refused to be in the same room with him when he read it. In fact, when I wrote the sentence: “Gamm was a jerk and nobody liked him” I immediately heard him in my head: “Is he really?”

See, Richard wants to feel what your characters feel. He wants to feel part of the story. He wants to get carried away. Narrative just doesn’t do that.

Now, imagine Richard read the show versions above. What do you think he’d say now? I’d imagine he’d use a few colourful expletives to describe people like Gamm.

Your show tools:

But what do you change to show in stead of tell? The answer is simple…though it takes a while to apply to your own writing (my, preciousss). You have two main tools.

  • In-the-moment descriptions
  • Dialogue

In-the-moment descriptions

Tell: She had silky hair.

OR

Show: His fingers slid through her hair. Wow, it’s so soft, he thought to himself.

Dialogue

Tell: She had silky hair.

OR

Show: “How do you get your hair this soft? It’s like silk!”

show don't tell

Of course, I’m just being silly now. Please don’t put pictures in a book that doesn’t need it.

I’d love to hear what you think! Do you have more tools?

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