One of the thorniest issues most beginning novelists have is what is meant by “show, don’t tell.” Certainly, a good novel will have a balance of showing and telling. If authors showed everything, then one novel could end up being as long as a library shelf of books, and readers would feel more like they’ve just completed a triathlon than reading an enjoyable story.
You want to engage your readers, not exhaust them. But what exactly do we mean by “show, don’t tell”? And how do you strike the right balance? Here are some common traps writers fall into with showing and telling:
Failing to supply the reader with a specific image
The reader will have to fill in the blanks, and this actually takes them out of the story. If you write, “When she returned home, she saw that they had taken down her favorite tree,” that’s a form of telling. The reader is left to wonder: What kind of tree? Was it a flowering tree? An evergreen? A shade tree? How big was it? It may only be for a fraction of a second, but if you have enough instances of this, you will lose your reader.
Here’s a version of the above sentence that answers all of those questions: “When she returned home, she was assaulted by the rubble of branches, twigs, and stump of what had once been the magnolia tree—her magnolia tree, the one she had posed in front of for every important occasion since she had been a scraggly eight-year-old and the tree a scraggly sapling.”
Use of the “to be” verb
This is the biggest, and most common, indicator that you’re showing. Telling usually starts with, “She was,” or, “He was.” A good example of telling versus showing here is:
Telling: “She was heartbroken.”
Showing: “She lay in bed for days and couldn’t even muster the strength to rub her golden retriever’s belly.”
Relying on “feeling” words
Words such as “angry,” “sad,” “upset,” “happy,” “ecstatic”, “bored,” etc. are sure indications that you are telling a reader what the character is feeling, instead of showing. Making the emotions stronger (“He was livid”) does not count as showing.
Use of vague, generic nouns
When you write “dog,” I picture my overeager golden retriever. So, tell me what kind of dog you mean: a yappy Chihuahua? A lumbering basset hound? Don’t tell me that he got in the car; tell me what kind of car: a 1964 Ford Galaxy, a Lincoln Navigator, a Mini-Cooper. Each of these cars conjures up a very specific image.
Showing when you should be telling
Telling certainly has its place. Knowing when to use it most effectively can help bridge more “on stage” scenes, as well as aid in pacing. Think of telling as those transitional moments between scenes, the summary that gets the reader from one place or one moment to the next. It can be as short as one line (“After spending the better part of the afternoon running to the post office, bank, dry cleaners, grocery store, and gas station, she arrived to her date feeling wilted.”) or span decades of time.
Here’s a wonderful example from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez:
“For a week, almost without speaking, they went ahead like sleepwalkers through a universe of grief, lighted only by the tenuous reflections of luminous insects, and their lungs were overwhelmed by a suffocating smell of blood.”
Here we have a passage of an entire week conveyed in only one sentence.
Not knowing whether you are really showing a moment, a character trait, an emotion, or a picture
This takes time to develop. It takes diligence to keep asking yourself if your words are enough to help the reader be fully invested in your story and to keep refining and refining until there is no mistaking what you want your reader to experience. Ultimately, if you keep at it, you’ll know when you’ve got it right.
These tips are derived from my book, The Novel-Maker’s Handbook. Read more tips like these along with other great writing advice, by purchasing your copy today.