The ‘show, don’t tell’ conundrum

I felt prompted to write this following the varied responses to something I posted on a Facebook authors’ group. Varied and just a little bit misinformed. Okay, there were some raging opinion-wielders but it’s Facebook so what did I expect?

If you’re an author, you will almost certainly be aware of the advice “show, don’t tell” (I hesitate to even hint it’s a ‘golden rule’ because of the raging opinion-wielders pedantically pointing out fatal errors wherever they want to see them).

Couple of obvious pointers, which are not obvious enough for some people: “show, don’t tell” does NOT mean “write long descriptions of everything” or “always try to show, never try to tell” or “follow this rule to the exclusion of any other rule, or even common sense”. And, most importantly and most often misinterpreted, “show, don’t tell” is not purely about describing what something looks like.

Now, the more pedantic and impatient opinion-wielder will want to ask this: Fine, smarty-pants, so what DOES “show, don’t tell” mean?

Easy. It means don’t bore the hell out of your readers, give them something to think about. It means don’t write “The king was evil” when what the reader needs to read is “The king liked to roast kittens for fun and drown miscreants in their own blood, even if all they had done was forget to salute his huge, obsidian statue seventy-five times each day.” It means be entertaining with your writing. Entertainment is key.

We can play around with some more examples, like this:

Sarah was happy.

That’s telling, not showing. Let’s give it some context.

Fred gave Sarah a bunch of roses. Sarah was happy because she appreciated the romantic significance of the unexpected gift.

That’s still telling.

Okay, smarty-pants, how else could you write it?

How about like this:

Sarah stared at the bunch of roses Fred was holding.
“For me?” she asked, clasping her hands to her chest. Her face lit up with a radiant smile. “They’re, oh, they’re just delightful.”

Pure gut-wrenching drivel, granted, but that’s showing rather than telling, and it gets a response from the reader. In this case, projectile vomiting.

In its most extreme form, telling becomes the infamous infodump. This is where the author wants to impart information they believe to be essential – usually the colour of a character’s eyes (green, generally) – but can’t figure out how to work it into the story so they just tell the reader about it.

Sarah looked in the mirror and saw a tall woman of twenty-three with long, frizzy blonde hair and emerald eyes.

That’s telling. Obviously. And a really painful way to describe your character.

First of all, nobody cares about the colour of a character’s eyes or the length of their hair. You generally see these descriptions somewhere in the first chapter and then never mentioned again. Unless a particular feature is essential to the plot, such as in a case of mistaken identity.

But I love how Sarah looks, protests the adamant author. It’s a huge part of who she is. I have to tell my readers what Sarah looks like.

Okay. Try this.

“You know you look like a cat, right?” Fred said.
“How dare you!” Sarah replied, gasping in horror.
“I mean your eyes, dummy. They’re green, like a big, cute, sexy cat.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet of you to notice. What do you think of my hair?”
“Looks like a Barbie doll fell in a cement mixer.”
“Aw, that’s exactly the look I was going for.”

And right there you get the description across, plus some insights into the two characters and their relationship. There are other ways to do the same thing, you just have to think like an entertainer rather than an estate agent.

Try this. It’s a tricky one:

Sarah opened the door.

That’s telling, not showing. Okay, but what if Sarah has been locked in the cellar for twenty years, without daylight? Or how about if Sarah is outside the main entrance of the castle belonging to that evil king? Or playing with a doll’s house? Or about to unwittingly open the front door to a serial killer?

Guess what – writing ‘Sarah opened the door’ would be fine in each of those cases. Adding an adverb would not improve it. Bloating it with descriptions would not improve it. But, and this is kind of important, it could be written differently because that’s up to the author and how they want the reader to feel when they read it.

No more examples, I’m sure that’s enough from me on the subject. I really need to get back to finishing the sequel to Cold Inside. Optimistically, it should be ready in the first quarter of 2019. I’ll post some more information on here as soon as I’ve got something definite to announce.

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