Thoughts On Writing: Show Don’t Tell

Show don’t tell.

This is a piece of advice you’ll hear time and time again – that you must show your reader what is happening, but what exactly does this mean? Aren’t you telling a story, after all? Well yes – but your aim should be immersion, and that’s what this is all about. 

You might hear, or read from other advice pieces, something like this:

When Bob got home, the dog was excited to see him. 

VS

Julie opened the door and immediately upon entry her dog jumped up in greeting, tail wagging furiously as he slobbered all over his owner’s face.

OR:

He was getting angry. 

VS

George ground his teeth and felt his hands ball into fists. 

The key is to describe what’s going on in the scene – to show – and not just be reciting the actions like a list of facts. Remember: you’re trying to stimulate another person’s imagination, and while you are relying on them to paint the scene in their mind, you’ve gotta give them something to work (play) with.

For practice, try imaging yourself walking into a public area (grocery store, library, classroom, whatever you’re most familiar with) and just describe what’s going on as you see it, then apply this technique to a scene in a story you want to write – don’t worry over pointless details, you can cut these out later.

Another practice “assignment” I’d suggest is to imagine yourself in a situation with intense emotions (a fight, near-death car crash, lover’s embrace, etc) and describe the feelings like it’s your personal diary because you also want to get into the habit of show how your characters feel (especially if you’re writing from multiple points of view). Don’t forget to describe the emotional responses of those outside the POV character as well.

One more thing: don’t over do it. The last thing you want is to be writing purple prose. And what is purple prose, you might ask? It’s when you use excessive descriptors and verbose language in an attempt to sound “poetic” when you could just get to the point. Especially when it’s over some mundane piece of information.

Examples:

The sky was awash with orange and red hues as the sun set behind the horizon.

VS

Orange and red painted across the sky as the sun descended behind the panoramic scenery, the dying rays of daylight succumbing to the deepening velvet nocturne, and the ancient, primordial darkness took its place. 

This sort of writing is fine if you’re just writing a short piece of prose, or simply playing with words, but when writing a story try and keep it short and sweet. Simplicity is not your enemy.

So there’s my take on the whole show vs tell “theorem”, I hope you find it useful.

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