“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Anton Chekhov
I have critiqued many manuscripts and had a great many critiqued. The one remark I have always found most useful and the one I remark often is that the author should “show don’t tell”. Now are you wondering what the heck does that mean? After all are we not “telling” a story with our writing effort? Well of course we are, but we are not JUST telling a story we are inviting the reader into a world, a vision, an idea unique to us but relatable to everyone who reads.
To make a story relatable we must allow some vision. Your MS is not just words it’s a mental motion picture and if you do not SHOW the read you fail to involve them in the story and that is in reality what they want, to escape into a different life for a short time.
So what do I mean to “show” well let’s stick with the movie reference: Let’s look at a very popular movie with lots of “showing”. TITANIC, most everyone can recall that movie with ease. So I want you to go to the scene where Rose and Jack first become aware of each other. Remember Jack is on the Steerage deck with Frabristio and he looks up and there is Rose at the railing.
Here is what we are SHOWN (no one tells a thing) we know Jack is completely attracted to her and that the difference in their social class makes little difference. And we know that Rose is at the very least intrigued by Jack. How do we know these things? We are shown. We are shown by Jack’s continued bold stare and the expression on his face and we know by Rose’s inability to stop glancing back even while she tries to play the uninterested socialite.
There is no narrator in the back ground telling us “… and then jack spots the pretty young woman and he falls in love at first sight while for the delicate Rose DeWitt Beaucator she cannot understand why the manner less stares of the man below her class makes her feel seen perhaps for the first time” Not at all, no one says a thing and yet the viewer knows all this without a doubt.
Okay so now you know what it is to “show not tell”, but how do we as writers do that? Well it’s not easy I can “tell” you. I have struggled with it for years. Often what I find is that in my first draft everything is a tell. It’s simply easier to get the vision of the story down in a telling voice. But, knowing that is half the fight because when I go back for a first rewrite most of those glaring tells are reveled and easily fixed.
The key is to know what we are trying to put out in a given sentence, paragraph or scene. Often it’s very basic. We are establishing a time, a place, a situation and the character’s (or characters’) physical and emotional state. So here is an exercise in going from telling to showing it’s very basic but that makes it easy to practice.
Everyone think back to the Rhyme Jack and Jill, go ahead say it out loud once or twice I won’t get into the historical significance just give the rhyme a saying and try and visualize it. Okay, you got it in your head… now I am going to write a TELLING scene about what happened the next day between Jack and Jill after the fateful “hill Incident” I will be writing from Jill point of view (POV) simply because it’s easier for me. Remember this is a TELLING scene.
The next morning Jill walked to the doorway of the kitchen and stopped. Jack stood beside the counter next to the coffee pot. He was still angry about the trip to the well and his broken crown. Jill certainly felt guilty and she wanted to tell Jack she was sorry. Jill wondered if their relationship would survive this latest incident.
Okay so I just told you everything you needed to know. I gave you a time, a place, a situation, the character’s emotions I even gave you the “GOAL, MOTIVATION and CONFLICT” (GMC) that being Jill’s wanting to say sorry (G) to save the relationship (M) but worried about jacks anger (C). Reasonable and direct… in other words TELLING.
Now let’s rewrite that in a SHOWING voice: all the same info just shown not told.
A bright shaft of light from the east window cut the room in half. Jill hesitated to enter even as the smell of fresh coffee beckoned. Perhaps it wasn’t just the otherworldly barrier keeping her back. Perhaps it was the way Jack was standing, back stiff, almost guarding the brewer. In profile she could detect the scowl on his face and tears burned the back of her eyes. A knot rolled in her belly and a lump formed in her throat. Here she was again, needing to tell Jack she was sorry, that she never meant for his crown to be broken, but it seemed at the moment that sorry might not be enough.
Okay so it’s not perfect and its way corny… but you can SEE what I did. I showed you it was morning rather hen tell you, I showed you what room they were in, showed you that Jill was nervous and guilty and Jack was at the least upset at the most angry and I still gave you Jill’s GMC…
It is very easy to lay it out for a reader. But that is not our craft. It’s not for us to say its 9AM in the morning. It’s for us to say “a shaft a light through the east window” and let the read choose if its 6AM 9 Am or moving towards noon. And we do not always need to say straight up it’s the kitchen… maybe the reader will be more familiar with a coffee pot in a breakfast nook or in the dining room. We establish it’s a kitchen through the soft descriptive we add like a microwave on the counter or Jack going to get cream from the fridge before noticing Jill in the doorway.
Now, it is your turn to practice. I find it helpful to simply go back and read each sentence. To say it out loud and ask myself do I feel like a 4th grader hearing it or do I feel like a fly on the wall in the story? I feel that you need to show don’t tell but as with all story matters you need to take what you feel is helpful and leave what you don’t believe fits your story’s vision.