BrianWFoster’s Second Law of Writing

Second Law: Show, Don’t Tell

Perhaps no other rule has given the novice writer more heartache and sleepless nights than this one.  I’ve seen this scenario countless times.  Our intrepid author posts his cherished work for comments on a writing forum.  Expecting praise and adulation, he checks back the next morning.  Five comments await him, all amounting to “show, don’t tell.”  Crushed, he shouts “what does that even mean” and throws his laptop in the trash never to write again.

In this post, I’ll attempt to remove some of the mystery from that dreaded phrase.

It is imperative you show the reader what is happening rather than telling them.  Showing engages them.  Telling bores them.

She went to the market, almost getting lost along the way.  When she arrived, she realized her money was missing.  She had to go back home.  Her father yelled at her.

What do you think?  Are you engaged?  I’d say probably not because this is all about the telling. 

Let’s see if we can improve it:

Full of hope, Jane opened the door.  The sunlight warmed her as she stepped into its vibrant rays.  She sniffed, and the perfume of the azaleas made her close her eyes in delight.  

“It’s such a beautiful day, I think I’ll walk through the woods instead of taking the road,” she said to herself.

Whistling, she skipped through the tall grass behind her house… 

You should get the picture by now.  So, what’s the difference between the two passages?  Several things: detail, revelation of character, and engagement of the senses. 

Detail – It’s not just “she,” it’s Jane.  There are azaleas, vibrant rays of sunshine, and tall grass. 

Revelation of Character – In the first version, the only thing we know about the girl is that she’s perhaps a bit irresponsible not being able to keep track of her money.  In the second, we know she’s full of hope, she likes the smell of azaleas, she enjoys a beautiful day, and she’s happy.

Engagement of the Senses – Could you picture any of the first version in your mind?  What did the market look like?  How did the money feel?  You’ve got nothing to go on.  In the revision, you feel the sunlight and see its vibrant rays.  You smell the azaleas. 

A question I hear a lot: Is it ever okay to tell?  Ready for the answer: Yes!

Here’s a great example.  You have a great action scene where you give a lot of detail, reveal character, engage the senses, advance the plot, and move the story in time.  You follow it with another great scene that does the same thing.  The problem is that nothing happens between the two, but there’s a gap in time and distance.  It’s perfectly okay to tell the reader: “hey, the POV character traveled to this new city over the course of the next day.”  Now, you’re ready to launch into the new scene. 

Sometimes, it’s okay to give some exposition by telling.  It’s almost always better to show, so don’t lean on this hesitant permission as a crutch.  Be careful, but I’ll allow you to slip in the occasional sentence if it’s presented well and flows with your narrative.

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