If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, or even if you’re just thinking about writing, you’ve probably heard the most sacred, steadfast, fanfare-inducing holy rule of writing, probably over and over again:
Show, don’t tell.
You metaphorically (or perhaps literally) had this adage engraved in your forehead on the day you decided to become a writer. Everyone from creative writing teachers to bestselling authors parrot this bit of advice like it’s some ancient knowledge passed down from the very first human to ever put marks on paper symbolizing language. You’ve had it hammered into your brain so deeply that if anyone asked you for writing guidance, you regurgitate ‘show, don’t tell’ immediately without even thinking about it, like a pre-programmed, dubious advice-spewing automaton.
But what does it mean? It’s easy for something to lose substance if you repeat it enough times, and doling out advice without giving practical examples is like someone handing you a baby and saying “here, don’t let this die.” It’s great advice, and absolutely necessary, but how do you accomplish it? Especially if you’re new to writing, it’s confusing to have these ‘writing rules’ yelled at you by a wild-eyed person who has clearly had too much caffeine from behind a typewriter. Show, don’t tell, is a good bit of writing advice, but how do you do that?
Here’s how I simplify show, don’t tell: showing is like watching a TV show, telling is like recounting the episode to a friend the next day.
You want to feel like you’re watching the TV show, not like someone else who watched it is telling you what happened. How do you accomplish that? Ironically, by being a storyteller who doesn’t tell stories. Instead, you’re more like a painter who makes pictures.
I’ll give you an example of this, from my novel The Bloody City (because I’m vain like that):
Sam and Muse took one of the beds. Muse had already fallen asleep on it after taking the painkillers Sam brought her. She twitched and shuddered in her sleep. Trina refused to get in the other bed with June, and June didn’t blame her. June gave her a pillow and blanket, and she curled up in the chair. June got in bed but didn’t expect to sleep.
She lay there, staring at the light from the bathroom stretched across the ceiling, the soft breathing around her a small comfort. Muse’s breath hitched with each shudder in her sleep. The occasional car passed on the street. Once, footsteps passed by the door, and June held her breath until they were gone.
Eventually, she checked the clock. Ten after midnight. So many hours before dawn.
She pushed the covers back and quietly got up. She padded to the bathroom and closed the door to a crack.
She leaned, both hands on the sink, and stared into the mirror. The overhead light was harsh, picking out lines on her face she didn’t know she had. Her eyes shone vivid green. Sam’s words from months ago came back, when he’d told her vividly colored eyes betrayed strong powers. She couldn’t hide them. They gave her away at every turn.
She sifted her fingers through her hair. Her light roots were a couple inches long, the black dye job on the rest faded. She placed her hand back on the sink and tilted her head. She looked old and tired. Her thirtieth birthday was coming up in a few months, though she had no reason to care. Where would she celebrate it, if she celebrated at all?
Would she even be alive to celebrate?
I could have shortened this whole passage up by merely saying, “June couldn’t sleep, she was nervous and restless, she had a lot on her mind. Eventually she got up and went to the bathroom, where she pondered her fate.” That, however, is telling. In this example, I’m showing how June feels–you can tell by her restlessness, the way she’s hyper-vigilant of the other people in the room and the sounds outside, the way she checks the clock. You know she’s got heavy thoughts on her mind, when she goes to the bathroom and critically examines herself and wonders morbidly about her future. I don’t have to tell you how weighty and tense this moment is, because you can tell by June’s actions. If you were watching this on TV, you would know this person was bothered and tense, and that things were not going well in their life.
Showing doesn’t always mean non-stop action. It can also be conveying a character’s state of mind by showing the way they behave. Instead of telling that someone is sad, happy, or angry, show how they react, interact, and behave. If your friend is sad, can you tell without them saying it? Of course you can. You should be able to do the same with characters.
So the next time ‘show, don’t tell’ is yammered at you as writing advice, you’ll have a better idea of how to implement this practically. Think of it instead as ‘watch, don’t recount.’