Show, Don’t Tell. WTH?

It’s advice every writer is given in craft classes, school, online, and in writing instruction books. It is hard NOT to stumble upon this gem of wisdom while doing a writing search. It’s a foundational piece of writing academia. Far be it from me to question that. However, rules are made to broken as the cliché says. One of the problems with writing advice is the beginning writer will embrace them as if they came straight from the oracle disregarding that every one of them has been successfully broken more often than it’s been successfully implemented. Or I happen to think so. Maybe it’s who I choose to read.

I would tweak Show, don’t tell to read, Show MORE than you Tell. There are times in a piece when telling is absolutely the path to take. And some things the reader doesn’t need to see, so summarizing and moving on is a good thing to do. Okay, it’s not a book but the best example in my head is a visual one from the show 24. Over the life of the series a lot of press pounded on the fact that this story told in real-time kept such a pace that the main character, Jack Bauer, never peed. There was no doubt in my mind that this man used the restroom during those long-assed days. However, it was action that took place off stage because it wasn’t relative to events and would have slowed the pace.

Likewise, your story may require a small summary of something without taking the reader all the way through a scene. It’s done in mysteries a lot. A detective has talked to some people but none of those were important enough for scenes so the writer summarizes what he’s been doing before moving him into the next scene involving showing.

In my YA novel, I don’t cover the period in which a major character becomes paralyzed but there is a flashback which opens with this ‘telling’ paragraph to catch the reader up on what they haven’t ‘seen’.

That next year the three of them worked together getting Toad back to health. They fought the depression, the paralysis, the frustration, and pain together. The memory of the night it all began to break loose for them and for Toad was seared in Ginny’s memories.

Showing on the other hand lets the scene play out in real-time. In this case, two friends are searching for another friend. (Sybil is a classic car not a person) Mayo is responding to Toad’s question of why they are going to her house in the middle of the night.

Sybil rumbled up to the four-way stop. Mayo hesitated before turning the corner. The clock displayed 12:25. “Because it’s late and Ginny didn’t text me.”

Toad wrapped a black curl behind one ear. “You realize how neurotic that sounds?”

“You’ve been seeing that shrink too long.”

“She’s a life coach!”

“Whatever.” Things grew quiet except for the reverberation of Sybil’s engine.

Show, don’t tell. When you review your manuscript, don’t think you have to strike out all telling. Determine if you are telling when you should show and vice versa. And those other rules? With a grain of salt. Except the cliché thing…

How do you handle Show vs. Tell in your manuscripts?



Filed under Writing

3 responses to “Show, Don’t Tell. WTH?

  1. I can’t tell you the number of books I’ve read recently where I could highlight many incidents of telling. It seems like a fine line where sometimes you can get away with it and other times not. I guess if you’re already a successful published author, they cut you more slack.

  2. Pingback: 24′s Jack Bauer on Health Care | THE SCARECROW

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