One of the most well known catch phrases of advice for writers is to “show don’t tell” but like every catch phrase designed to sum up a sophisticated piece of wisdom in a few words, it pays to look into it a little further.
The general argument for “show don’t tell” is that the reader needs to visualise what’s going on and also to come to understand characters by what they do, rather than to be told what a character is like.
A tell example:
Estelle wouldn’t carry her own bags. She was a rude woman who thought she was better than everybody around her and it showed in the way she dressed.
A show example:
“Pick up that suitcase Bob! I really don’t know why I must push you along so much,” Estelle flustered as she stormed up the path. Her inappropriately high shoes clipped and clopped along the pavement, holding her upright frame, nose held high in the air and shaded by an ostentatious hat fit for the Melbourne cup.
The show example has more detail and more words involved. It also gives a much stronger visual impression of the character. Including dialogue gives the character a voice. Mentioning the sound of the shoes gives another audio sensation.
Reading an entire novel with this much detail could end up being a little exhausting though, so it’s a good idea to mix the show and tell to give a bit of variety. Use the tell for lesser details and the show for details you want the reader to connect with strongly.
Most writers tend to over-do the tell and under-do the show. Here are some tips to assess whether you need to reign in the telling:
- the reader already knows a character before they meet them because they have been told all about them already. Instead get the reader to know the character through good “show” writing.
- you tell the same thing more than once or twice (don’t assume you need to explain things to your readers by telling them facts straight out)
- there’s a lack of senses being used in the writing, ie smells, sounds, feelings
- have you used metaphors?
- and finally, what have you left unsaid? Nothing? Perhaps you have told too much. Don’t forget the power of sub-text.