If you are a writer, you’ve heard the phrase "show don't tell" until you are sick of it. People who claim to teach writing drum this into their students’ heads as the number one tenet. Editors criticizing rough drafts red pencil it above passages written with sweat and blood. But it is hard to quantify exactly what that three word phrase actually means.
Honestly, I doubt I can make it much clearer than anyone else, because it is something that suddenly makes sense to you when you see it – like the scene at the water pump in THE MIRACLE WORKER, when suddenly Annie Sullivan’s patient hand gestures in her palm “click” for Helen Keller, and the world unlocks for her. “Show, don’t tell” is that kind of epiphany. It may come in smaller stages, but in the end, it is as life-changing.
Here is a practical illustration. In my first published novel, THE BLOOD THAT BINDS, Stefan was crippled as a child by a dog. The scene was presented to the reader in the form of a flashback thought sequence by Roland, the other character present at the time. This is “telling” the audience what happened. Now, of course, without taking the action of the novel back in time so that the scene occurs chronologically, I can’t completely “show” the scene, but in the rewritten version of the book, THE LUCKLESS PRINCE, Roland has a conversation with someone about the incident, making it much more immediate and integral to the action – “showing” it much more clearly. (And, as a bonus, revealing more character details through the give and take of a conversation.)
Even more to the point is another example from later in the book. In the original version, Mendana thinks about the supplies she may need to replenish. The reader is told which herbs are low and so forth by virtue of an omnipotent look into her mind. Now, she is talking to another character as she looks through the baskets. He is offering suggestions, and taking down her requests on his tablet. The scene has now gotten a life; it shows what happens instead of telling about it.
And the thing about this is, it took someone who was not a writer, but a reader, to look at the scene and say “but wouldn’t it be better if…?” My husband became my Annie Sullivan by teaching me that italicized thoughts are rather boring and break you out of the story, but—in his words—“forcing” the world around the characters to provide the information you want the reader to know makes that world a lot stronger and deeper.
Not only does removing the italics help keep the reader in the story (the change in font always catches the reader’s eye and breaks the flow somewhat) but it gives the writer a chance to expand their world. For example, in the scene mentioned above with Mendana, the second character in the scene originally didn’t show up for the first time until later. Now, his character is more developed, and the reader will care more about what happens to him further along. He becomes less “the messenger” of the original – created because someone needed to send a letter – and becomes a living being with other interests and talents.
Another example of “show, don’t tell” is the result of my new writing partner, who read through my original rewrite and commented about many aspects of the world-building that were never mentioned through both a professional “book doctor” revision and full—and thorough—edit before the book was published the first time. (I am convinced that part of this was because my editors were all women, and saw the book from a different perspective—having beta readers of both sexes is a much better strategy.) In trying to answer his questions, several characters have been added to the story. The history of the kingdom that the reader needs to know isn’t handed out in a block of narration, but delivered as a lesson in politics.
Flashbacks, thoughts, blocks of exposition…all of these are ways a writer uses to “tell” their audience something. Sometimes, they cannot be avoided. Sometimes, they really are the best delivery method for the information the reader must know, but far more often than you would think, they can be rewritten into dialog or interactive scenes that “show” the author’s intent. This is the most important lesson an author can ever learn—but it is the hardest for anyone to teach them. If you can break through that mental darkness like the blind Helen to understand the symbols in your palm, you will not be able to type fast enough to show the world your watershed stories.
I am still learning how to show my worlds, but it gets easier every time you practice. :)
[An earlier version of this post appeared somewhere in 2009, but I can't for the life of me remember where.]