I’ve been reading a book lately that violates one of the most basic writing lessons: Show, Don’t Tell. (I’m not talking about the scene in Orange Is the New Black where Alex lifts her head up from between Piper’s legs and says, “Show, don’t tell.” Get your mind out of the gutter!)
Show, Don’t Tell is Writing 101. Yet so many writers don’t seem to grasp the concept.
To be fair, it’s not an easy thing to master. When telling a story, it’s hard to determine where narration should end. And some narration is necessary in a story—after all, you can’t show every single thought or emotion or put every little event or conversation into action. The goal is to minimize the telling and maximize the showing. To find the right balance of quickly proving back story info and action, internal thoughts, and physical manifestations of emotions.
Showing is something that all writers do when first starting out. It’s a natural thing to do because we are telling a story, and in conversation, that is exactly what we would do—tell what we experienced. Let’s face it, a conversation would be more engaging and highly entertaining if someone tells a story as a writer would, but it doesn’t usually happen that way. Can you imagine someone telling you about running into an old flame at a store like this:
I entered the newly opened market and looked around at all the perfectly stacked displays. The signs were bright, the shelves were immaculate, and the paint on the walls was unmarred. The floor gleamed with newness and I could smell the ripe strawberries in fruit display case.
I grabbed a shopping cart and slowly made my way down the aisles, perusing each and every item on the shelves. I was so engrossed in the myriad organic pastas that I didn’t see her. Susan, the woman who had broken my heart five years ago, was standing several feet away from me, just staring, and looking as stunning as the day I met her. My heart began to pound and my palms became sweaty. It bothered me that she still had that effect on me.
In reality, we would tell the story more like this:
“So I went to that new store on Main St.—”
“What new store?”
“You don’t know? Yeah, there’s a new Stop & Shop on Main, near Fourth. You know, where the hardware store used to be.”
“Anyway, so I go in and it looks really, really nice. Everything is so new and clean. I mean it’s really nice. You should go check it out. So I go in and I’m going up the aisles slowly, you know, checking everything out—they’ve got a great organic pasta selection—
“Yeah. And I’m totally engrossed in looking at stuff that I don’t see this woman staring at me. But I feel her eyes on me, so I look up, and guess who it is? Susan.”
“How did she look?”
“Gorgeous. As usual. That bitch. And the thing is, she still gets to me.”
That’s not how we want to read about this person’s experience. In the narration, we see and smell what the new store is like, which sets up the scene and makes it real for us. Those are details that are absent from the real-life conversation below it. The conversation is how we would actually tell a story, but we would be telling it and not showing it.
The novel I’m reading was written early in the author’s career and my hope is that she has improved since then. I’ve not read any other of her works, so I can’t say. But I hope so.
Learning “show, don’t tell” is a process and it’s a pitfall that I think that most writers fall into sometimes. But if you learn to recognize it, you can fix it. By adding details that show what a character is seeing, smelling, touching, and hearing, we can experience the event along with the character and get a clear sense of what’s going through her mind. “Her stomach tightened and she began to shake” is much better than “She got nervous,” right?
Then there’s the dialogue technique. Not the kind of dialogue I described above, but useful, purposeful dialogue in which you can provide the reader with information without taking them out of the action of the story.
It’s a shame—the story itself (the one I’m reading) is not bad. It has an interesting premise and I find the characters engaging, if somewhat overly done, and I’m slogging through it because I want to find out what happens. But I find myself huffing and puffing and mildly cursing. It sometimes feels like I’m reading through The Wall Street Journal.
Don’t let your readers feel like they’re reading through The Wall Street Journal. Show, don’t tell.