Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Writer Wednesday: 3 Masters Speak About Show, Don't Tell

In search of inspiration for today's Writer Wednesday post, I opened my "Little Black Book of Writers' Wisdom" and don't you know it opened to a page of quotes that artfully and succinctly address the matter at the heart of excellent writing.

Show, don't tell.

I first heard the phrase at my first writer's conference back in the summer of 2009. I admit that I hadn't a clue what the phrase meant. And though I heard it repeatedly over the years, it seemed that people had a difficult time explaining what it meant.

Now that I've completed three novels and penned a fourth in draft, I've come to understand the phrase "show, don't tell." That's not to say that I never slip into telling. It's just less frequent now and on revision I *most of the time* catch it.

Showing not telling is such a vital requirement to writing a story well that I've chosen three quotes today to get the conversation going. First, from Anton Chekhov, a lovely example that explains the phrase perfectly:
"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." - Anton Chekhov
Have you ever heard a more perfect example of show? The "glint of light on broken glass." So many of us writers would have a tendency to say, "The moon was shining." Flat, passive and a tell, not a show. A more adept writer may say, "The moon shone on the glass." Better, but still fairly simple and uninteresting.

With attention to craft, a master such as Chekhov comes up with "the glint" on "broken glass." In just a few words, he shows us so much. The choice of words matter. Showing matters. And it's the difference between a novice and a master of craft. Do this in every sentence for an entire novel and you'll writer a novel that readers are excited to read.

But wait, here's another one to hit the point home.
"Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream." - Mark Twain
Sometimes we talk about "on camera" and "off camera." Novice writers often "tell" us what happened "off camera" rather than bringing it "on camera" and showing the reader the action. I'm guilty of that. And it's a writing style that can quickly bore the shit out of the reader rather than engage the reader.

Anyone call "tell" stories (even your Uncle Fred who rambles on and on at family get-togethers). Anyone cal tell, but it takes practice, failure, re-writing, writing, and more practice to learn how to "show" a story (and if everyone could do it, then even your Uncle Fred would be a best-selling author). If the action is worth mentioning, considering putting it "on camera" rather than telling the reader what happened off camera.

The last quote today (remember I promised your three) is from E.L. Doctorow:
"Good writing it supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon." - E.L. Doctorow
Take a moment to let that sink in.
". . . the feeling of being rained upon."
What does it feel like to rained upon? And when he speaks of feeling, does he refer solely to the physical sensation of rain upon the body? Or is there an internal emotion that arises upon being rained upon? Take a moment to consider how you can show both a physical feeling and an emotional response of a character in reaction to an event.

Have you even read a poem or a part of a novel that made you feel as if you lived what the character(s) experienced? If you have, chances are that the writer did a great job of showing rather than telling. The writer made you feel the rain. Wasn't it wonderful?

Have you found it difficult to see in your own writing when you tell rather than show? Do you think there are times when it's okay to tell rather than show? Do you have a quote or example of show, don't tell?


  1. However, to steal a phrase from someone else, you don't need to describe everything. We all know what a dude or a chair looks like. You don't need to describe every tree in the forest, just the one your second cousin hung himself from.

    1. An excellent point. I wonder what you think of GRRM's pages upon pages describing banners and cloaks? ;-)


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