It’s a phrase you’ve heard before: “Show don’t tell”. In fact, you’ve probably heard it so many times that it has started to lose all meaning. You repeat the phrase in your head and try to apply it to your writing. You stare at the sentence you’ve just written in a numb state of confusion. Are you telling too much? Are you showing enough? Have you forgotten this golden standard? Did you ever really understand it in the first place?
We’ve all been there. There are many times when I’ve found myself questioning just how important it is to follow the rule of show don’t tell. And what even the difference is been showing and telling in writing to in the first place.
As far as I can tell, the rule of show don’t tell can be applied in two main ways: exposition and emotion.
For exposition, it is best to try to avoid info dumps. Try to integrate this into the story in a meaningful way instead. So, for example, if you find you have to explain the history of a fictional war, rather than simply listing what has happened so far, try to connect it to the plot that is naturally occurring as a part of your narrative. Maybe your character is on the run because they signed up with the rebellion. Make it personal and try to spread out the backstory through a longer period of action so the reader doesn’t get bored with a wall of text. Or, consider having the characters in the story discover the backstory along with the reader.
Perhaps things to avoid are characters who are introduced just to asked questions that the reader might have or characters who go on long monologues in which they tell their entire life story.
However, there are always exceptions to every rule and nearly the entire second scene of my favorite Shakespearean play, The Tempest, is character given exposition. The important thing is to ask yourself, am I boring or confusing my readers? If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t beat yourself up over not adhering strictly to this rule.
The application of the show don’t tell rule for emotion in writing is a little bit more subtle. It has to do with not always straight out saying how a character is feeling, but instead, conveying it through description and actions. For example, rather than saying a character is upset, consider commenting on why they seem upset: they shuffle their feet or look at the floor, or how they close off their body protectively. These descriptions are more specific and concrete. Tangible actions are often more likely to resonate with the reader than abstract concepts like “upset”.
However, once again, there are always exceptions to this. Unless your character has a nervous habit of chewing their fingernails, you probably shouldn’t use this as a sign of nervousness every single time you want to convey that your character is nervous. It is okay to just say that they felt nervous. In fact, often, I find that you can both show and tell in the same sentence. For example: “She crumpled her napkin in her hand and looked about nervously.” The word “nervously” in this example is telling, while the rest is showing.
The best thing to do when it comes to the rule of show don’t tell is to not obsess over it, but to consider it more a helpful guideline.
It doesn’t hurt to consider it when writing because, in many cases, it can help you to fine tune your writing to the best version of itself. But, don’t force it just for the sake of following some kind of community imposed rule.
Still confused? Don’t worry. So is everyone else. Here are some more people talking about show don’t tell:
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Kim Batchelor is a recent graduate of University of Michigan and avid consumer of media. She is the Buzz Manager at BookHive and is working on creating her own blog.