Hi everyone! Patty Smith Hall here, and today, we’re going to tackle one of the major building blocks of effective writing—Show vs Tell.
If you’ve been to a writing conference, had a critique partner or read books on craft, you’ve probably heard the phrase, ‘show, don’t tell.’ For those of you ‘newbies,’ let me explain.
First off, let’s look at the definition of these words;
The meaning of the word ‘tell’ is ‘communicating information, facts or news to someone in spoken or written words. Other words to describe it are informed, notify, apprise and advise.
When I think of telling, I think of a newspaper article. For an article to be informative, it has to answer five questions—who, what, where, when and why. Most (with the exception of editorials) are very basic with little to no description. They’re looking at the situation from ten thousand feet above so they can’t give much detail or expression.
My first draft is a lot like that. I’m trying to get the story down, learning the who, what, where, when, why. During this time, I use words like angrily, solemnly, joyfully, hesitantly or phrases like she or he thought. While its okay to do this, it doesn’t draw your reader into the story or make them feel for your characters. It might look something like this:
‘Maggie stared pensively out the window as she took another sip of coffee.
That’s okay, but it doesn’t give readers a hint of why Maggie feels pensive. It doesn’t even reveal the setting. As a reader, would you finish a book like that or would you read on?
Now let’s look at the word ‘show.’ The definition of ‘show’ is ‘be, allow or cause to be visible; to display a quality, emotion or characteristic; a display or spectacle; a play or stage performance.
I like that last description. Here in the south, we don’t go to a movie. For us, it’s a show which is a fitting description. In a movie, you’re able to see the actor’s expressions, get a feel for the motivations behind their actions.
When I start editing my rough draft, I picture each scene as though it were a movie. I slow it down so that I can catch all the nuances of my character’s expressions and how they respond to each plot twist. Writing my story this way brings my readers deeper into the story world and gives my characters more layers which makes the reader care about them.
So how does this look? Let’s take pensive Maddie.
Maddie stared pensively out of the window as she took another sip of her coffee.
But if we look at this as we would a movie scene, this is what we might see:
She missed her mountains.
Maddie stared out the big picture window, drawn to the outline of the Davis Mountains silhouetted against the morning sky. She took another sip of Sally’s coffee, her latest bout of homesickness drowning out the hustle and bustle of the café.
Did the second paragraph draw you into the story? Did you feel for Maddie? That’s what showing rather than telling does. That doesn’t mean you never can use telling. If you want to show the passage of time, telling is a good way of doing that—you’re moving the story forward without going into details that aren’t important to the story. One example for my books is from my first one, Hearts in Flight. My heroine was a pilot who flew test flights during WWII. Only I never wrote about her actually flying a plane! Why? Because it was a romance, her flying wouldn’t have moved the story along.
Here’s a simple way to think of it: Say your husband or wife tells you ‘I’m going to be a better mate.’ That’s all well and good, but wouldn’t showing you with their actions their intentions be even better?
I hope I’ve helped you understand show vs tell a little bit more. Some good articles on the subject are:
Show, Don’t Tell; A Simple Guide for Writers by Jerry Jenkins
Showing Vs Telling in Your Writing by Writer’s Digest
Show Vs Tell by R. Michael Burns
Show Vs Tell: Examples by Camy Tang
Writing Prompt: Read a page of your WIP. Did you find problems with telling? How can you show the scene?
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A multi-published author with Love Inspired Historical and Barbour, Patty lives in North Georgia with her husband of 35 years, Danny; two gorgeous daughters, her son-in-love and a grandboy who has her wrapped around his tiny finger. When she’s not writing on her back porch, she’s spending time with her family or working in her garden.