“He felt upset.”
“He clenched his fists tightly, his jaw clenched as he paced the room.”
The age old writing command: ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. Some writers take it as like the ‘Golden Rule’ of writing…but is it really all it’s cracked up to be?
Well, I’ll give you my views on it, and then you can decide for yourself. Sound good? Good. Then buckle up, guys, ’cause this will be an interesting ride. 🙂
It sounds great to say ‘show, don’t tell’, doesn’t it? We’d rather not be told he’s angry, but see him pace the room and reach our own conclusion about it, right? Well…yes, and no.
The thing is, I do not believe ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is or should be an absolute or a ‘rule’ in any way. (Although, if you’ve read my posts, you’ll know I don’t believe in writing ‘rules’ anyway.) However, there is always a reason such phrases–‘rules’–come about, so don’t throw away this one yet.
Sometimes, yes, showing versus telling is a better option, particularly if your sentence has a boring old ‘felt’ in it, or sometimes ‘thought’ and other such lifeless words. ‘He felt angry’. Wow. Let’s have a round of applause for that, ’cause I feel absolutely nothing when I read ‘He felt angry’. But on the flip side, there are some times I just sit back and shout ‘Dude, just tell me it’s a barn, already!’ (You know, those authors who use ‘purple prose’ and go on and on with tricky clues about something that turns out to be pretty ordinary?)
Really, ‘Show, Don’t Tell’, can easily be reversed as ‘Tell, Don’t Show’ in some situations. Take the phrase as reversible, and try applying it both ways to different part of your writing. Sometimes it is totally fine and in fact much better to just tell the reader what something is, you know? Description is a big one there. Sure, use descriptive descriptions, haha, but just tell me there’s a red barn on a hill so I’m not floundering in ‘The majestic red building perched atop the grassy knoll like a proud bird’ or something equally ridiculous. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, actually–I prefer emotional connection with description. Like this:
‘The rusty old barn brought a flood of memories to the front of her mind: the smell of hay after jumping in it for hours; the carefree laughter of innocent children playing, not yet tainted by life’s cruel games; the songs of bluebirds sitting cheerfully in the trees, singing their cares away.’
Something like that, maybe more polished ’cause I just made that up on the spot, haha. But now I feel all nostalgic and kind of warm and fuzzy inside, thinking about that barn. 🙂 Whenever I think of that barn, I’ll have fond memories.
Also, there’s a bit of debate about what ‘telling’ versus ‘showing’ actually is. To me, it’s a pretty fine line to walk, and there are only a few blatant and often way-too-over-the-top examples of each. Actually, it reminds me of something I heard someone say once: writing is like a play. A set is required, as well as the actors, and both have very different but important parts. The set is ‘telling’, you are given very clearly and obviously what everything is. (Scene: The living room of a log cabin. There is a bright fire crackling in the hearth, and a gun hanging over the door 😉 The actors, though, give you the ‘showing’. The subtle ways they say and do things without blatantly looking at you and saying I AM UPSET, haha. They just present what they have and let you draw your own conclusions.
So, with that in mind, think of how clear it needs to be, whatever you are saying. If you want no confusion about whether ‘that majestic red building’ is a barn or a castle, just tell them it’s a barn. No one’s going to bite your head off for it, I promise. 😉 In fact, they’ll probably thank you for presenting it plainly so they can dig into the deeper stuff without hesitation.
But, when it comes to things that you want to or need to make subtle, show it. If you want the readers to pick up on the fact that your character is stressed and doing her best not to show it, use some small things to hint at it. Show her squeezing her fists too tightly, posture stiff, maybe gritted teeth or a forced sigh, etc. But don’t flat out say ‘She was stressed’ or have her say ‘I’m stressed!’ That rarely works, although, again, there are exceptions, especially when they get all fed up, haha. Like if someone was way too calm and was upsetting your character even more, asking innocently what’s wrong, they might blow up a bit and be like ‘I’m stressed out, okay?’ But even still, that should be hinted at and built up to that point. 🙂
So, in closing, don’t always show, but don’t always tell, either. Play around with it, figure out what seems to work the best, and above all, go with what your gut is telling you. A writer’s gut is usually right. 😉 (That was almost a pun, haha.)
And now, I want to hear from you! What’s your take on ‘Show, Don’t Tell’, and how do you apply it to your own writing?