How to Escape the Show, Don’t Tell Trap

How to escape the Show, Don't Tell trap | Jeni ChappelleNothing is worse than getting the dreaded “show, don’t tell” note back from your editor. You read it again and again, repeating in your mind: I thought I was showing. This looks like showing to me! So, how do you get out of the show, don’t tell trap? Read on.

Why it’s important

The Show, Don’t Tell advice is all about your relationship to the reader. It’s intended to help a writer create a mental picture for readers instead of just explaining what happens in the story. Showing gets the reader involved, making them draw from their own experience to understand and relate to the characters and their story. You get the picture started, and the reader’s imagination takes over to bring your novel to life.

How it’s misunderstood

This is important advice, to be sure. The problem is (as with most other writing advice) it’s often taken too far. Showing requires more description—which means more words—and can wear your readers out. We’ve all read those books with the 3-page description of a single room. I guess I should say—we’ve all skimmed those books because we don’t need 3 pages to depict a room. This brings me to my next point.

Sometimes you have to tell

It’s that simple. You just can’t show all the time. You don’t need to show all the time. Your writing needs more variety than that. Sometimes, it’s more appropriate to explain things in simpler terms. A few of those situations are:

  • Getting your reader up to speed so you can move on. For example: there’s too much backstory to show in flashback or through dialogue. Or the reader doesn’t know something that all the characters do.
  • Easing the boring parts of life that are necessary to make your story feel real, like small talk, changing clothes, and commutes.
  • Transitioning from one scene to the next. A bit of telling means you don’t need a million asterisks in your book.
  • Enhancing the reader’s connection. Yep, sometimes narrative can be magical. There’s a reason why we call it storytelling. As I’ve said before (and I’m sure I’ll say again), context is everything.

How to show: some general advice and warnings.show, don't tell

All of showing can be summed up in one word: detail.

When I work with a coaching client who struggles with showing, I tell them to write in excruciating detail. We can always cut and condense later (and usually do!), but writing this way gets them into the spirit of Show, Don’t Tell. Want some tips to help you show better in your writing? Of course you do.

Be descriptive

Describe events thoroughly. Be specific. Like I said above, you can always edit out too much description, but not enough will leave your story feeling flat.

Warning! Don’t miss the forest for the trees—focus on the details that matter. Does your reader really need to know, in painstaking detail, the size, shape, color, scent, and texture of each item of clothing your protagonist is wearing? Probably not. If in doubt, ask how it enhances or detracts from the emotional connection to the story.

Sensory language

Showing how a character experiences something is often much more engaging than explaining it. Focus on the senses and on physical responses. These are universal and represent nonverbal communication, which is a huge part of how we communicate in real life.

Warning! When talking about someone’s sensory experiences, it’s easy to fall into clichés. Beware throbbing pulses, hammering hearts, twinkling eyes, and scents and sights assaulting people.

Dialogue

Dialogue is a great way to show a character’s feelings, motivations, backstory, relationships…pretty much everything—foster an emotional connection with your reader.

Warning!You can still dump information in dialogue. Especially be careful not to have characters telling each other things they should already know, simply to benefit the reader.

 

How do you make Show, Don’t Tell work for you? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.

 

Jeni Chappelle

Jeni Chappelle is a freelance editor. She lives in an itty-bitty town a few miles from Charlotte, NC with her family and a menagerie. Jeni is a participating editor in Pitch to Publication and #ShoreIndie. You can visit her blog and learn more about her editing at www.jenichappelle.com.

Posted in Writer's Life Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
9 comments on “How to Escape the Show, Don’t Tell Trap
  1. Joyce Lavene says:

    Show don’t tell can be a problem – either too much or too little. It takes time and patience to discover the difference. That’s why writing every day is important. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Thanks, Joyce. You’re so right that this is something that writers need to practice. Reading to see how other writers show and tell can make a big difference too.

  3. Jeni — Great article! Once again, challenging writers to think about what they are writing and why. (On the snarky side, I always insist that, technically, all writing is telling, not showing, but I know what people mean when they give the advice “Show, don’t tell”, I just wish there was a better phrase for describing intention there, one that was less open to misinterpretation.)

    I’ll leave a link to an image that, for me, strikes at the heart of the tension between “show” and “tell”.

    http://fritzfreiheit.com/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell_%28image%29

  4. Lee and J.J. says:

    Thanks for the insightful post. ‘Show don’t tell’ is something all writers need to keep in mind, but you rarely hear how to do that.

  5. Great article Jeni! I’m going to tweet it and pin it. Thank you!

  6. I had an interesting experience while finishing up “Scissortown.” I thought it was basically done, the artist was almost finished the pictures, and my son was working on the layout. Then my daughter (Tina’s mom) sat me down and said it was boring. She pulled out a Berenstain Bears book, and we put it beside “Scissortown” and compared them. She helped me snap up “Scissortown” with more dialogue and less telling. I’ve known the “Show, don’t tell” rule for years, but I think we were using another rule at that point–there’s nothing like a “fresh pair of eyes”!

  7. Ellen Abernathy says:

    Great article. I was struggling with this advice the other day and thinking, “But I can’t show EVERYTHING–some things have to be told.” The upside is, it has me thinking about my story in new and different ways, which can only help.

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Jeni Chappelle

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