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One of my favorite pieces of advice for writers is to show, not tell.
It’s not my favorite because I find it to be the best advice you can give a writer. It’s my favorite because it is the least understood piece of advice I’ve ever heard.
I once had a writer tell me to show not tell a little more in one of my stories, but then proceeded to read one of their own works where the scene was described so vividly that I had no idea what the hell was going on.
That writer then later confessed that they had often been told to show not tell but actually wasn’t sure what the difference was between showing and telling in writing.
This is a surprisingly common problem among writers- especially new writers. It’s not that you are a bad writer for not adhering to this particular method- but that following the advice to show more than you tell in your stories will improve them in the eyes of most readers.
So what does it really mean?
The main tenet in showing and not telling is not to draw up a beautiful scene where you tell the shade of green on every leaf and the exact way a character speaks.
Showing not telling is leaving out a tender set of details such that the reader has to fill them in- but when she does she finds that those details you had left out are ones she remembers so vividly that she feels you had actually written them.
One of my least favorite authors, Hemingway, was a champion of this. His argument is that “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water”. Like the iceberg, our readers do not need to see everything.
For example I do not need to know that Professor Grimpletongue has bifocals, garden green eyes, a balding head and curly yellow-white hair that crowds into a brilliant red beard which ungracefully sits upon a well fed grandpa gut, which jumbles and shakes with his hard right-legged limp as he enters the brilliant mahogany door from West Africa into the classroom filled with students of a hundred different ethnicities from Norwegian to East Brazilian.
No, I do not need to know all of that nor will I care to. You may be proud of descriptions like this while the reader will put the book back on the shelf and never look at your book again for all the brilliance of its front cover.
The magic of showing is that it saves you time- You can flesh out the details of the character by moving their plot along, by having them do something while making the story worth the reader’s time. Consider this:
Red beard proceeding, Grimpletongue limped through the door. If not for the glasses, Jason would have mistook this elder for a homeless man. Here, Jason thought, here is the man who will torture us for a semester?
“I assume you have your books and have read the syllabus by now,” Grimpletongue said, “Good then I’ll get started.” He wiped his mouth and began writing an equation. “The main purpose of calculus is to find the averages between two basic points of interest.”
This isn’t the best example- but it gives the reader the exact same description without over exerting and yet all while moving the story along. Not only do you know about Grimpletongue, but you know a bit about Jason as well. I never said he was a student, yet you would know that immediately. You would also know that Jason had a preconception of Grimpletongue- someone had warned Jason about the man to the point that Jason had begun to worry. I never said that Grimpletongue’s beard was frequently covered by his own spittle, and yet you may have gathered that when he wiped his lips before using the board- this as you may note would change in your mind the way the professor speaks. I never said which leg caused the limp, but the reader can find that his body looks as unkempt and unhealthy as a homeless person to Jason, and the reader learned this while noting that Grimpletongue wore glasses. The plot has moved forward, and a description was given for two characters, all this all at the same time.
Showing not telling is a powerful tool that can be used to push a story forward and keep the reader focused on the key points of what is occurring.
That said- there are times when you should not follow this advice blindly. The seasoned writer knows when to show and when to tell. The best time to employ this is when you want to slow down the story, to let the reader stew for a minute on what is really happening.
This, I think, is often used when something mind bending has just happened before the character’s eyes. Horror writers are excellent at this. How many times has a book or movie terrified you because the writer slowed down and told you about every sound in the deep silence of a scene, or described in vivid detail every last sinew of a hand torn slowly from the body of a man writhing in agony, foaming at the mouth through gritted teeth? Horror writers also employ the use of not showing or telling. The scariest of horror films and books generally do not reveal the monster for most of the plot- the characters see shadows and hear anecdotes. This gets the blood flowing. Know what to leave in and what to leave out and it will take you far.
In your own writing practice try leaving out details that on reflection seem frivolous. Ask yourself, do you need to describe every detail of Sally’s room? Do you really need to mention the buttons on Captain Mellgrade’s boots? See if leaving these things out at times improves your writing.
Try as well to do the exact opposite, describe the exact same scene you want to write in two different ways, one with too many details and one with very few. See what the difference is between the two- does one seem illegible? Which is better; and which actually has something to say?
There are hundreds of books that will give you exercises just like this but for me a personal favorite would be Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. The late master’s short writing workshop contains enough advice to push your writing years ahead of what you thought you knew about writing.
Tell me about your progress in the comments below and in the end, keep writing, my friends!
A special thank you to last week’s featured writer Amr Nasser From Egypt for sharing his work with us! You can find links to his book as well as one of his powerful stories Carma in the featured writer’s section.
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