You've probably heard it from your writing buddies, seen it in how-to books, and read it in author interviews. It's arguably the ultimate writing mantra, the number one way to improve your writing.
What exactly am I talking about? The Show, Don't Tell rule.
High five to you if you guessed where I was headed! Show, Don't Tell is one of the most popular expressions in any creative writing sphere, novel writing included. Many bestselling authors claim that it is the key to crafting rich descriptions, immersing readers in the story, and ultimately writing with professionalism.
Show, Don't Tell.
But what does the phrase really mean? Is it worth its salt? And how can you incorporate it into your writing in a way that doesn't seem contrived? Let's get down to business!
As with most things in life, a healthy balance between "good and bad" is the key to reaching and then maintaining a goal. Just as it would be extremely difficult to avoid desserts for the rest of your life in an effort to be healthy, it is nearly impossible to complete an entire novel without simply stating a fact at some point.
The Show, Don't Tell rule encourages writers to keep from directly stating any facts, instead using descriptive language to reveal those facts to readers.
In other words, Show, Don't Tell advises writers to avoid inserting their presence into the novel via exposition or summarizations and instead allowing their characters' thoughts, senses, actions, and emotions to drive the story forward.
In many ways, this makes Show, Don't Tell very similar to writing in Deep POV.
Show, Don't Tell has become such a popular technique because employing it opens up the door for readers to become immersed in your novel. The fewer notes of authorship you include, the easier readers can get inside the head of your main character, thus sucking them in to the action of the story.
And while Show, Don't Tell is extremely popular among modern novels, telling is not without its place. Yes, that's right! There really are instances where telling instead of showing is okay, even encouraged.
Here a few of the most popular cases:
1. To connect scenes. Let's say that you have two subsequent scenes in your novel that are separated by a period of two weeks. You need to connect the scenes in a way that lets readers know that time has passed without writing lengthy description that would slow down the pace of your novel.
The simplest way to make the connection known is to simply state that two weeks have passed. Crazy, right? Feel free to get a little creative (e.g. The days turned into a week, then another...), but don't dilly-dally in between the scenes by trying too hard to show that time has passed.
2. Including backstory. I've said it before and I'll say it again, your novel is about your hero's present story, not their backstory. For that very reason, you need to keep your novel's backstory short and concise.
Showing often takes many more words than telling, so simply stating your hero's backstory is the more efficient route to keeping your novel focused on the present. Usually this is achieved in a character's thoughts or conversation so as to avoid reminding readers that there is an author behind every word.
3. To otherwise be concise. As a personal rule of thumb, if I am writing more than three sentences to show something that doesn't hold much weight in the story (and can't otherwise be edited down), I will replace that description with a statement.
It's safe to include as many descriptions as you'd like in your first draft since you're trying to get your story down on paper as quickly as possible.
However, you must kill your darlings in the editing stage. If your beautiful description takes up too much valuable space, thus distracting your readers from what is really at hand, you need to employ the black sheep of writing mantras: Tell, Don't Show.
As you might have gathered from the previous section, showing often translates into description while telling is written as statements. If you're still not sure how that applies to your novel, take a look at one of my favorite writing quotes:
"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." - Anton Chekhov
Looking back at the classics, you'll find that showing was not as popular a practice as it has become today. The reason for this is strongly linked to the rise of television and movies.
When modern readers pick up a book, they expect the story to play out like a film in their minds. They want to be fully immersed in the hero's experience just as they are when they turn on the TV. To see the scenes, smell the scents, and hear the sounds...
That is why Show, Don't Tell has become such a popular mantra among modern writers. It encourages writers to dive into that movie mindset, where things are seen and smelled and heard instead of simply written.
How can you accomplish this in your own writing without making your work sound contrived? Here are a few small changes you can make that will help you get into the movie mindset:
1. Describe the five senses. Movies thrive on sensory details. They use establishing shots that evoke the audiences' senses in order to set the scene. You can borrow this technique by immersing your readers in a new scene via the use of the five senses.
Just avoid using more than one paragraph of description at a time; you don't want your readers to lose focus on the hero's journey.
2. Avoid telling verbs. When writing in the movie mindset, avoid using telling verbs (e.g. heard, saw, thought, smelled, wondered, etc.). These verbs are similar to dialogue tags, which we talk about below, in that they pull the reader out of that movie-like experience, reminding them of the author behind every word.
In order to keep readers immersed in your story, cut out telling verbs and move on with what you are trying to say.
3. Use rich language. Whenever you can, avoid using adjectives and adverbs to modify nouns and verbs, respectively. Instead, take your nouns and verbs to the next level by making strong word choices (e.g. "fled" instead of "ran frantically" or "sunlight glinted on the lake" instead of "the bright sun shone on the shiny lake").
Remember, descriptive words don't always make for a better description. Making strong word choices will make your writing seem professional.
4. Cut out dialogue tags. Remember when we talked about dialogue tags back in this post on writing in Deep POV?
Dialogue tags are markers that indicate speech (e.g. I said, he yelled, she whispered, etc.). You obviously don't hear these words when you are watching a movie, so you should avoid them whenever possible in your writing.
You can do this by replacing dialogue tags with short sentences or phrases that imply the speaker and the tone of voice.
For example, replace "'I love you,' he whispered," with "His lips brushed against my hair. 'I love you,'". The words used in the second sentence still provide clarity without drawing readers out of the story.
5. Avoid stating emotions. Movie characters don't often state that they are sad or happy or angry. Instead, viewers see them shed a tear, smile, or throw something against a wall. You can easily translate this into your writing by avoiding the statement of emotions at all costs.
Remember, you can't make your readers feel an emotion by simply saying it exists. Instead, use descriptive language that evokes imagery to speak to your readers' hearts.
As I mentioned above, there are some cases where telling rather than showing works better in your novel. However, not every good instance of telling will fit into one of the categories I listed. Sometimes, you should simply state a fact in order to break up an overabundance of flowery language.
Have you ever read a really cheesy romance novel? If so, recall the instance where the heroine describes her love interest. It probably read something like this:
"His eyes were like the sea during a storm, dark blue and tumultuous. His jaw was chiseled like marble, his nose sharp and strong. His golden locks glimmered in the sunlight as he carried the boxes, ropy arm muscles rippling beneath the crimson fabric of his t-shirt."
Whew, that was a lot of showing! It kind of hurt to write it, so I can't imagine how it must have felt to read through it.
As you can see, too much elaborate description can be overwhelming, driving readers mad.
In order to make your novel read seamlessly, you need to have a healthy balance between showing and telling, and I think I've found the perfect formula to keep you on track.
For every two or three descriptive sentences, break up your work by simply stating a fact.
This statement will act as a breath of fresh air for your readers, keeping them from having to work too hard to visualize what was written.
Let's take my previous cheesy romance example and re-write it using the formula above. It might go something like this:
"His eyes were dark blue (statement), as tumultuous as a storm at sea (description), a stark contrast to his cheery crimson shirt (description). He had that classic Adonis look so many girls admired (statement). Chiseled jaw (description), strong nose (description), ropy muscles (description), I admired them all as he carried his box of belongings into the office (statement)."
Much better, right? For reference, let me re-write this paragraph one last time using only statements.
"His eyes were dark blue. His shirt was crimson red. He had a prominent jaw and big muscles. I watched him as he walked into the office, holding a box with his name on it."
Aaannd...yawn fest. As you can see, neither straight showing nor straight telling will do the trick. You must craft a careful balance between the two in order to write in a way that readers can both visualize and enjoy.
If you find that showing doesn't come naturally to you, there are a few steps that you can take to up your description game.
1. Read as often as you can. Consistent writing aside, the best way to improve your work is to read novels critically. Find a descriptive paragraph in one of your favorite books. How does the author describe the subject? What strong words do they use? Do they use similes or metaphors? Repeat this process with several different novels, and apply what you learn to your own writing.
2. Practice makes perfect. You can also try a fun little exercise called Switching Up the Senses. Yeah, I totally just made that up, but it is nevertheless a great practice technique.
When you have the time, seat yourself in a place you don't know well and close your eyes. Then, describe the sights of that scene using only what you can hear.
For example, if you hear the wind and the sound of tires, describe the leaves of the trees dancing in the breeze as an old man drives by in his rusty old pickup truck.
You can then switch it up and describe the sounds of a scene through only what you see. I find that this swictheroo actually works best if you watch television on mute. Either way, this practice technique forces you to think more creatively, thus teaching you to craft better descriptions.
3. Poetry time. Lastly, you may also consider reading and writing poetry. This may seem like a drag since poetry is a completely separate style of writing. However, poetry thrives on connecting two unrelated ideas to produce an intriguing new idea, which is exactly what novelists often do when writing their descriptions.
Let's take a look at "Hope" is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson for example:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Dickinson describes hope by relating it to a songbird. Even though the two are completely unrelated, Dickinson is able to use the songbird to describe how we keep hope caged up inside of us in order to keep some light on life.
The more poetry you read, the easier it will become to make your own connections. In time, this will help you write beautiful descriptions that will pique reader interest.
I know that poetry may not come easily to you, or any of these tips for that matter. However, if you truly do find descriptive language hard to write, I definitely recommend giving them a try. Even if Show, Don't Tell isn't as strict a rule as some would claim, showing is still a necessary element in your writing. With a little time and effort, you will see progress in your work!
Well, that wraps up my tips on Show, Don't Tell. If you have any other tips or tricks for balancing the showing and telling of your work, make sure to let me know in comments below. I love that we can learn from one another and work together to stay inspired! High fives for all of you!
And before I go, I want to give a special shout-out to the lovely Caritha Marks! I'm so glad we came to know one another better during the Author Up Challenge. This post is for you, girlfriend!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!