It is hard to put into words and define the feeling (or any feeling) by using only words. Well, one of the blessings of being a writer is that even though we work in words, those words can be put into action. I’m going to go into the “Show Don’t Tell” rule a bit for people that are unfamiliar with it, and as a refresher for everyone who is. I needed the refresher myself, so I figure someone else will also. Instead of you searching for it in google, I can save you the trouble.
Show Don’t Tell means that
. Use dialogue
This is probably one of the first things I talk to my students about when I have them write personal essays. Dialogue allows the reader to experience a scene as if they were there. Instead of telling the reader your mom was angry, they can hear it for themselves:
“Justin Michael,” mom bellowed, “Get in here this instant!”
Dialogue can give your reader a great deal about character, emotion and mood.
2. Use sensory language
In order for readers to fully experience what you’re writing about, they need to be able to see, hear, taste, smell and touch the world around them. Try to use language that incorporates several senses, not just sight.
3. Be descriptive
I’m sure everyone remembers learning to use adjectives and adverbs in elementary school. When we’re told to be more descriptive, it’s easy to go back to those things that we were taught. But being descriptive is more than just inserting a string of descriptive words. It’s carefully choosing the rightwords and using them sparingly to convey your meaning.
The following example is from a short story I wrote.
Telling: He sits on the couch holding his guitar.
There’s nothing wrong with that sentence. It gives the reader some basic information, but it doesn’t create an image. Compare that sentence with this:
Showing: His eyes are closed, and he’s cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover. It’s as if he’s trying to hold on to something that wants to let go.
The second example takes that basic information and paints a picture with it. It also uses figurative language—in this case, the simile “cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover”—to help create an image.
When using description, it’s important not to overdo it. Otherwise, you can end up with what I call “police blotter” description. For example:
He was tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. He wore a red shirt and jeans, and a brown leather jacket.
4. Be specific, not vague
This is another one I’m constantly reminding my college students about. Frequently, they will turn in essays with vague, fuzzy language. I’m not sure if they think this type of writing sounds more academic, but all it really does is frustrate the reader.
Instead of writing, “I had never felt anything like it before in my entire life,” take the time to try and describe what that feeling was, and then decide how best to convey that feeling to the reader. Your readers will thank you for it
Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed by writers to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to experience the author’s ideas by interpreting significant, well-chosen textual details. The technique applies equally to fiction and nonfiction.
“Show, don’t tell” should not be applied to all incidents in a story. According to James Scott Bell, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” Showing requires more words; telling may cover a greater span of time more concisely. A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling.
Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress. According to Orson Scott Card and others, “showing” is so terribly time consuming that it is to be used only for dramatic scenes. The objective is to find the right balance of telling versus showing, action versus summarization. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play.
According to novelist Francine Prose:
[The Alice Munro passage] contradicts a form of bad advice often given young writers—namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell. Needless to say, many great novelists combine “dramatic” showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out … when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.”
Nobel Prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway was a notable proponent of the show, don’t tell style. His famed Iceberg Theory, also known as the “theory of omission”, originates from his bullfighting treatise, Death in the Afternoon:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
While writers such as Prose and Munro may champion “the specific use of language”, and while creative writing experts may seek to debunk misleading myths, it is nonetheless true that most great novels rely heavily upon subtext and the art of what is left unsaid. The “dignity” Hemingway speaks of can be interpreted as a form of respect for the reader, who should be trusted to develop a feeling for the meaning behind the action without having the point painfully laid out for him. It could be argued that showing and not telling is what separates fiction and literature from news-writing or historical narration.
That’s it for today! I’ve been really wanting to properly blog! Between starting a new job, looking for a second job, trying to get my submission into women’s world, working on my own little side projects, the class I am taking, and sleeping, I’ve not been posting as much as I would like. I’m hoping this changes very soon.
Note: Various sources around the internet used for this post!