WHY Show, Don’t Tell

Writing is, of course, an abstract medium.

Your art is not the actual words, but the imagery you convey with them. Your canvas is not the actual page, but the mind; good writing is the powerful rendering of your vision in the imagination of your reader, where they take possession of it, and claim it as theirs.

The best way to do this is via elenchus.Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 1.12.15 PM.png

Because people are stubborn. Tell someone the sky is blue outside and they’ll look for themselves. We tend to reject ideas without proof (don’t get me started on epistemology, that’s a whole different topic ok). But if the idea is our own, we’ll argue it to the death.

Same with writing. Rather than tell your reader it’s raining, and expect them to just believe you, make them feel it. Let them decide it’s raining. They’ll envision it, and because it’s their idea, they’ll own it. Immersion.

Telling:
The rain came down in sheets, soaking his clothes. He had to hold his umbrella sideways, as much to stay dry as to keep it from flying away. He hated rain, at this moment more than ever.

umbrella-277047_1920.jpg

Showing:
She sploshed into a puddle, soaking her feet instantly, and swore. As if damning the water to hell would make its situation worse. Gusting wind flung a thousand droplets against her face, pouring down her cheeks and jaw in icy runnels, plastering her hair against her temples. She huddled into the umbrella, held more like a shield now, and staggered through the biting cold, cursing whatever Greek deity had dreamed up the hellish notion of precipitation in the first place. Yes, O Hella, god of Dammit, let’s dump an entire ocean on the people from five miles up in the sky, ten million drops at a time. What an asshole.

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But that’s so much work! It’s like four times the woooords!

Yes. Yes it is. It’s a statue of Persephone, not a PlayDoh person.

In the Telling section, the reader learns that it’s raining hard and our hero is displeased. It’s rainy. But in the second, we learn the same thing, but the reader gets a more thorough picture of the MC, not to mention some of her voice, and it’s not just rainy, it’s misery- and did you notice the absence of a particular word therein?

Showing is especially important when it comes to characterization. Tell me your MC is a badass, and I’m not impressed. I’ve read plenty of badasses. Show me. Throw her down a mountainside, break her leg, scatter her pack to the winds and bring on the wolves. And ffs don’t bring her out unscathed. I want her panting and battered and drained and barely alive, but she makes it anyway. That’s badass.

Don’t just tell me your MC is brave and strong. Please. Understand that bravery is not the absence of fear, but the conquering of it. That strength is not the opposite of weakness, it is the overcoming of it. Put him at the mouth of a black cave, not knowing what creature lurks within. But that was the last place he heard the cries of his friends, he can’t leave without them. His heart is hammering at his rib cage, his brain screams at him to get out of there –oh, and his sword is broken. Scowling, he marches into the dragon’s maw with grim determination.

Now I’m impressed.

Want to see how it works? No problem.

Shoulders slumping, she pushed back from her desk with her feet and sank deeper into her chair, squeezing her eyes hard with a thumb and forefinger. What the hell was he thinking? If he had just called, for once in his goddamn life, she would have been there in an instant. Christ, she’d kill for a cigarette. If he lived, she’d kill him.

composition-1217184_1920.jpgWhat did we learn?

She’s

  • annoyed
  • concerned
  • assertive
  • opinionated
  • a caretaker
  • known him awhile.

He’s

  • headstrong
  • risk taker
  • impetuous
  • stubborn.

All this is shown, without ever saying she thought X to herself, or he was a Y man. It endears you to the characters, invests you in them. Are you curious at all what he did that has her so annoyed? What their relationship is? Do you want to know more about them? Elenchus -> Curiosity -> Investiture.

You don’t have to tell your readers anything about your characters. Ok, their names, yeah, maybe a description, some backstory. Everything else should be shown. Because once your reader is curious about your character, they’re going to burn through those pages to find out what happens. They will really want to know if there are blue skies.

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One thought on “WHY Show, Don’t Tell

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