I bet you agree with most writers that ‘show, don’t tell‘ is an overused phrase that’s lost its meaning.
As some involved in book editing I hear this a lot…
For some, show, don’t tell has become a cliché with little value, but as a professional editor, I’d insist that showing, not telling is the most powerful tool a writer can use. Utilizing this one technique will make you a better writer overnight.
Afterall, clichés are clichés for a reason and there’s a strong element of wisdom behind the well-worn phrase.
I am a professional book editor who has edited more than 500 books and one of the advantages of editing so many books is that you start to see trends. You learn the most common mistakes writers make and learn what advice will have the most impact. I’ve discovered that by far the most common mistake writers make is that they tend to tell rather than show.
The impact of telling is that readers become bored as you produce unengaging prose and two-dimensional characters
In short, failing to show is killing your book.
Creating Boring Books
One of the most common reasons a reader stops reading a book is that they become bored. The reader will start with the best of intensions, but if the plot is weak, the characters are undeveloped and the writing is not fully engaging, the reader will turn off. We’ve all done it, just how many books have you started and never finished?
Your role as a writer is to keep the reader engaged. Fortunately, this process is not too difficult.
When reading a book, the reader must feel part of the story. They must feel as if they are ‘in’ the narrative, experiencing what is happening. The best way for this to happen is for you to treat the reader as an observer to a scene. A reader must ‘see’ the scene as it unfolds in front of them. They must be able to picture the location and characters, visualizing the actions as it occurs.
This means that you SHOW the reader all that is happening, not TELL them.
For example, if you were to write:
‘The woman was happy.’
This would be TELL. You are telling the reader the woman’s emotion; she’s happy. The reader is left with no wriggle room. They are left with no work to do and don’t need to engage.
However, if you wrote:
‘The woman smiled and then jumped in the air, clapping her hands.’
This time you are forcing the reader to do work. They need to picture the scene and the woman. You are leaving some narrative space for the reader to lean into and add their own meaning. Is the woman happy? Ecstatic? Something else? It’s now the reader’s job to engage with the story and add the meaning. This is SHOW. You are describing the woman’s actions. The reader remains part of the scene and, hopefully, the character’s actions trigger an emotion in the reader.
By showing, not telling emotions, plot and back-story you are forcing the reader to ‘lean into’ the book. This keeps them engaged and part of the process. Each time you tell the reader something about the story, the reader is pushed onto the back foot and disengages, too much tell and the reader gets bored and stops reading.
The aim is to create a narrative space between the character and the reader.
By showing the reader what is happening, but not telling them, you force the reader to work out the reasons for the character’s words and actions. This way they must build their own picture of your characters.
The Role of the Narrator
Once you switch your thinking to the need to show, it soon becomes clear that the role of the narrator alters. If you are telling, then the narrator is doing all the heavy lifting. They are the reader’s direct route into the plot. The narrator is spoon-feeding the reader the story, leaving the reader with no room to build their own narrative.
This means that when showing, the role of the narrator changes. The narrator is now there to describe characters, their actions, the locations and, on occasions, the thoughts of characters. They are not telling the story, they are describing it.
This does produce one issue. If the narrator is describing the actions and words of characters, how do you pass key plot points to the reader? If you can’t just have the narrator just tell the reader, how do you pass back-story for a character and key plot information? How can this be done if not in the narration?
The answer is simple; you do it via dialogue.
If you want the reader to know something about the character’s background or a key plot point, you do it in a conversation between characters. This way the reader remains an active part of the story process. They will ‘discover’ the plot in the words of the characters, rather than have is passively spoon feed to then via the narrator.
For example, if you are writing a novel in which a key plot point is that the main character must be able to fly a plane, you would not put this information in the narrative, you would put it in a conversation. The wrong way to do this would be for the narrator to tell the reader the character could fly a plane. The correct way would be to show the reader by having the topic come up naturally in conversation and then have the character admit they can fly a plane.
Let’s look at another example…
If you want the reader to know your main character is an expert in hand-to-hand combat then you are presented with two options.
The first would be to tell the reader. This is the wrong way to pass the information. For example:
John had grown up in a tough city, where survival was more important than education. School life had been problematic and fights were part of everyday life. However, after one fateful day, when he had returned home with a black eye, John’s father had insisted his son should toughen up. From that day on, John attended the local karate dojo training each day until he was an expert.
The second would be to show the reader. This is the correct way and leaves the reader engaged and active. For example:
’You look pretty good, do you keep in shape?’ said Paula, eyeing John’s well-formed torso under his tight t-shirt. John smiled.
‘Yeah, but I am not a gym rat,’ John replied.
‘No? You must pump weights or something; you don’t get a body like that eating pizza and watching TV.’
John smiled. There was a pause. ‘I think the whole pumping iron thing is a bit weird.’
Paula’s eye scanned John’s body. ‘So what’s your thing?’
‘Ohh.’ There was a tone of surprise in Paula’s voice. ‘You any good?’
‘Yeah. Pretty good.’
‘How long you been training?’
‘Since I was a kid.’
John shifted in his chair and stared at Paula for a moment, his fingers touching his face.
‘I grew up in a bad are,’ John’s voice was almost a whisper, ‘there were fights at school every day. One day a gang of lads jumped me. I didn’t stand a chance; I was a wimp at the time. I was beaten up pretty bad. When my old man saw the state of my face he didn’t say a word, he simply grabbed me by the hand and took me to the martial arts dojo on the corner of our street. I had never been in before. My old man took me inside, had a quick word with the guy who ran the place and left me there. For the next ten years, I went every day after school and train. I even started to enjoy it.’
‘Well, I never came home with a black eye again.’
This example contains back-story. The way John whispers the reply shows he is not comfortable with his past. I had decided his father had beaten John and John didn’t like talking about his past. I have added pauses to reflect John’s internal voice as he ‘filters’ what is said to Paula. However, the reader is shown the words and there’s no further explanation. The reader is forced to add their own meaning, becoming engaged in the process.
Elements of a Story
A good story is made up of three elements:
- A character’s internal voice.
- A character’s external voice.
- A character’s reaction to events.
This means that whilst you are showing back-story via dialogue and events, you can also build the character. A character’s internal voice will be providing a ‘dialogue’ that reflects the character’s thoughts. A reader will never ‘hear’ these. The external voice is what is reflected in the dialogue. This is shaped by the internal voice.
For example, above I had decided that John had an internal voice that said, ‘People who pumped iron where self-indulgent and lacked self-confidence’. This was reflected in his words. I never told the reader this; I let it show between the lines, so to speak.
The final aspect is the way a character reacts to events. In our example, if a mugger confronted John he would probably fight back. I suspect he would also react badly to a bully. These reflect John’s internal dialogue, but it is not something that should be told to the reader, instead, it is shown in the actions of the characters.
The interest for a reader comes when the three elements (internal, external and actions) don’t match. In real life, what people say, think and do are very different things. It is this paradox that creates three-dimensional and interesting characters.
So… if you shortcut all of this and just tell the reader, you have missed all the elements that make novels such great tools for telling stories and examining human behavior.
- Plot and back-story are passed only via dialogue.
- Narration is only for description of actions, characters, and locations.
One simple technique you can use in your writing, to ensure that you are showing, not telling, is called the camera test. This is a simple process; imagine a scene from your book as if you are viewing it through the camera lens. You then write the scene only using the elements that the camera would see (or hear). This means that your focus shifts to describing characters, locations, actions and words. What you can’t do is focus on using the narrator to dump back-story and plot.
Showing not telling is a cliché for a good reason. It is a great phrase to shorthand a whole methodology of storytelling. By showing, not telling you are forcing yourself to write in a way that will create great, fully developed characters and stories that will keep the reader fully engaged from start to finish.
If this is a subject that interests you, I have written a whole book on the subject. It is free and you can download it today; just click the link below: