Explaining "Show, don't tell"...

1:40 PM

While this blog is so new, I am trying to stick with the absolute basics. First, I covered the fear of starting. And then the difference between the passive and active voices.

Now, I want to cover one of fiction's first rules, "show, don't tell."

There's a great quote from Anton Chekhov that explains this concept perfectly.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

In The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, Jack M. Bickham explains that "show, don't tell" is shorthand for this advice: "Don't lecture your reader; she won't believe you. Give her the story action, character thoughts, feelings, and sense impressions as the character would experience them in real life. Let her live the story for herself as she lives real life, by experience."

Go From Facts To Feelings

"Fiction can only involve and convince and excite readers if it let's them experience the story world in the way they experience real life: by taking in stimuli and drawing their own conclusions."

"In real life, you don't walk outside in the morning and experience the start of the day with something internal like, 'Cloud cover is thick. The temperature is 64 degrees, the humidity is 42 percent, traffic on the highway is heavy."

"What you do is walk outside and see with your eyes that it's gray and dim; you look up and see the thick gray clouds; you feel the temperature with your skin...and relax, or feel warm, or shiver. If you breathe deeply and the air feels thick to you, you may conclude it's humid. You hear the roar of cars nearby and conclude traffic is heavy on the highway."

Get Into Viewpoint And Stay There!

You must imagine all the thought and sense impressions from one character's viewpoint, and then stick with that character. Imagine the variety of impressions they may be experiencing at any given moment and then present those impressions as "vividly and briefly as possible."

Sticking with your viewpoint character is very helpful with showing and not telling because it removes the temptation to tell the readers things that are totally unknowable to that character. So you can't start telling people what's over the next hill or who is coming up behind them.

Reveal The Evidence In A Logical Order

"Usually this means a chronological presentation. If someone knocks on your character's front door, for example, you simply can't start the next paragraph with dialogue, and then only later mention that oh, by the way, it was Jim at the door, and his face was twisted in anger, and our viewpoint character was concerned and invited him in."

"Instead, you take it a step at a time, logically, as you (and your readers) would experience it in real life: the sound of the knocking at the door; viewpoint character goes to the door and opens it, sees Jim standing there, sees the angry scowl and clenched fists, asks, "Jim, what's wrong? Please come in."

Revealing Characters

"Even the presentation of your viewpoint characters emotions can often be handled more convincingly through showing. It's always tempting to get inside the character and start analyzing. "Sally was so sad and depressed," for example, or "Sally felt the anger rise up in her so sharply that it shocked her. But in such cases, it's more compelling for readers if you find a way to show, something like:

Suddenly she realized the sound in the room was her own sobbing. She felt tears on her cheeks. She raised her hand and it was trembling before her eyes. I could end it all, she thought without warning.
It's your goal to immerse readers in your story's world and make it as much like the real world as you can. Instead of just knowing simply what you are telling them, you need your readers to be able to fully visualize what you are showing them.

For more in depth discussion on the topic of Showing instead of telling, check out the articles below. And if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask. We can work it out together.


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  1. This is such a valuable tool - thanks for sharing! Showing versus telling can also be applied to all kinds of other opportunities, e.g. creating business pitches, conveying sympathy, blog posts etc. Here's an article I wrote from the perspective of a fiction editor, if you're interested: http://catehogan.com/show-dont-tell-rule/