A common mistake among aspiring fiction writers is to describe (tell) events as if they took place at some point in the past, instead of putting the reader right in the middle of the action and showing the events as they occur, in real time, along with the characters’ reactions, feelings, and actual words.
To clarify what is meant by “show, don’t tell”, think of it this way: Which would you rather do, go see a great movie in a theatre with a big screen and surround sound (“show”), or hear about the movie from someone else afterward (“tell”)? That’s the difference we’re talking about here.
In order to “show” instead of “tell,” you need to put your characters right in the middle of the action and play the action as it’s happening. And it’s important to show your characters’ reactions, emotions and feelings, through actions, dialogue, interior monologue and descriptive metaphors, to heighten the interest and make the reader bond with them. When you’re showing an important scene, use mostly direct dialogue, word-for-word, in quotation marks. Don’t summarize what the speaker says. And don’t forget to bring in details of the setting, and to show cause, then effect; and stimulus, then response.
As Ingermanson and Economy say in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Showing means presenting the story to the reader using sensory information. The reader wants to see the story, hear it, smell it, feel it, and taste it, all the while experiencing the thoughts and feelings of a living, breathing character. Telling means summarizing the story for the reader in a way that skips past the sensory information and goes straight to the facts.” (p. 178)
Janet Evanovich considers “show, don’t tell” to be one of the most important principles of fiction: “Instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you're trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life.” Put another way, “It is the difference between actors acting out an event, and the lone playwright standing on a bare stage recounting the event to the audience.”
The most basic mistake of novice writers is that they tell the reader what happened rather than showing them. Take this paragraph, a summary or telling:
Telling: “Nat knew she had to find another car, and fast. She approached some teens in a restaurant and ended up buying an old Neon for $300. She drove off quickly with it.”
Now here’s the real scene (showing) from Lisa Scottoline’s book Daddy’s Girl:
“… A take-out pizza joint stood on the far corner, and a few old cars were parked in a small lot out front—which gave Nat an idea.
She put on her pink glasses and a NASCAR cap, and hurried to the restaurant. […] The storefront contained only a few red tables, and one held a trio of teenagers hunched over a hamburger pizza with a pitcher of Coke. They looked up when Nat walked over.
‘Excuse me guys.’ She pushed up her glasses. ‘Do any of you want to sell me your car?’
The teenagers burst into raucous laughter. The tallest one, a good-looking kid with a fake diamond earring, said, ‘Yo, dude, you for real?’
‘Yes. I need a car, now. I’ll pay cash.’
‘Cash money, dude?’
Nat turned to the shortest one, who wore an Eagles knit cap. ‘What do you say? You got a car?’
‘An ’86 Neon. Got 120,000 miles and no radio, but it runs good.’ Eagles fan cracked a lopsided grin. ‘S’my stepsister’s car.’
‘I like Neons. You like cash?’
‘Yes.’ Eagles Fan’s eyes glittered. ‘And I totally hate my stepsister.’
‘Sell it, dude!’ the others shouted. ‘They’re gone the whole frickin’ weekend!’”
(… and continues like that. Great stuff! Thanks, Lisa!)
As Jack Bickham says in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, “Not only does moment-by-moment development make the scene seem most lifelike;…it’s in a scene [with dialogue and action and reaction] where your reader gets most of his excitement. If you summarize, your reader will feel cheated – shortchanged of what he reads for – without quite knowing why.” (p. 61)
Here’s another example:
Telling: Michelle suspected her husband of cheating on her.
Showing: Michelle tossed and turned, thinking about the phone call and hang up. Finally, she got up and crept over to the chair where Eric had left his pants and shirt. She sniffed the shirt collar for perfume, then quietly went through the pants pockets. She found a piece of paper and his cell phone and tiptoed out the bedroom door to read the note and check his recent calls.
(Dialogue, inner thoughts and emotions would make this even more vivid. This could be expressed through a phone call or in-person conversation with her sister or trusted friend.)
As Shelly Thacker says in her article, “10 Tips for a Top-Notch Novel,” “Readers of popular fiction don’t want to experience the events of your novel at a distance; they want to FEEL what’s happening. They want to laugh, cry, hope, worry.” Shelly also gives another excellent piece of advice in the same article: “Strive for more dialogue than narrative. … Narrative tends to slow things down and usually leads to telling instead of showing….Showing with action and dialogue creates vivid characters and a fast pace; telling only bogs down your story.”
Also, the bulk of the scene needs to be about a conflict of some kind between characters. No conflict = no scene. The conflict part of the scene “draws readers out through a moment-by-moment drama, extending the scene suspense with pleasurable agony” (Bickham, p. 62). In order to grab your readers and intensely involve them, your scene must be lifelike and involve lots of emotion and conflict, and appeal to as many of the five senses as possible.
Scene (show) versus summary (tell):
Of course, you can’t show everything, or your book would be way too long, and it would tire your reader outs – or worse, end up boring them. 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.”
The rule, according to Bell, is “the more intense the moment, the more showing you do.” That’s the difference between scene and summary. You don’t want to describe every move your characters make at down times, or when going from one place to the other. That’s where you summarize or “tell”, to get them to the next important scene quickly, without a lot of boring detail. Instead of describing your heroine getting up, getting dressed, having breakfast, brushing her teeth, going out the door, locking the door, getting into the car, etc., etc., just start with her rushing into the elevator at work, running late for an important meeting. Narrative summary is used to get past the boring, uneventful parts quickly and on to the next scene.
Therefore, “Show, don’t tell,” like all rules, has exceptions. Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but often what happens between scenes (transitions) should just be told/ summarized/skipped past, so the story can progress. The objective is to find the right balance of telling versus showing, scene versus summary.
© Copyright Jodie Renner, August 2010
Resources: Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell; The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham; Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy; Wikipedia; “10 Tips for a Top-Notch Novel” by Shelly Thacker (http://www.shellythacker.com/).