Wrestling with Show v. Tell

We love stories. Sit in any critique group for longer than 10 minutes and you’ll hear the phrase “Show, Don’t Tell.”  While it is true that all stories mix and balance showing and telling, the best yarns that keep us turning the page show characters acting, feeling, and responding. It’s not that you never tell. Sometimes, writers have to tell us that Jack climbed up the hill.

Telling has a place in storytelling. As readers, we don’t need to be told every tiny detail, particularly when it involves a mundane activity that doesn’t move the story forward, build tension, or impact the outcome of the story. Good writers use telling to share secondary information. For example, you can write “Jill drove to work.” You don’t want to spend sentences, let alone paragraphs, sharing every detail of Jill’s drive to work. That would be less gripping than watching outdoor paint dry on a rainy day. Save your details for revealing significant plot twists or scene descriptions. When you need to be clear and precise, tell.

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Showing builds intimacy between the reader and your characters. It helps us get in their head and peak inside their soul. Showing reveals a piece of your character’s heart. Showing builds tension and makes your reader curious to find out more. Done right, you’ll have your reader salivating like Pavlov’s dog.

A brief example of showing:

Mom sobbed as I stood at the edge of my father’s hospital bed. “Dad, do you know who I am?”

The man who I’d once considered invincible shot me a blank stare. “No. Who are you?” He glanced over at my mom, kneeling at his bedside. “Who is he?”

Deafening silence filled the room. I could hear my heart thump. In that moment, I realized that the anger I thought I’d let go still raged deep inside me. We had our share of disagreements, the old man and me. Now, I was the only one able to keep score.

“Dad, it’s me. Your son.”

Nothing but a glazed stare returned my plea.

Mom rose from the floor, pressed her hand on my shoulder, “He’ll remember you. You’ll see. He’ll get better. You can’t keep a good man down.”

My eyes welled up, my hands balled up in fists. Good man?  The man who’d once been my hero quit being a good man years ago.

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Good writing leans in favor of showing, sparing the telling for those things that can only be told. A great sentence doesn’t come easy. Writing riveting paragraphs demands effort. We only get better at writing by sitting down and hammering out words on our laptop’s keyboard. There are no shortcuts to becoming a good writer. What are you waiting for?

Get writing!

 

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