There’s a Deadline Beast lurking in the near future, so this post will be brief, for me.
You’ve heard or read this before, but even writing today’s post revealed some laziness on my part and I cleaned up several pages of my work in progress.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov
“In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me. C.S. Lewis
The late E. L. Doctorow, author of twelve historical fiction novels said, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
And then there’s King Stephen who is always delicate as a chainsaw. “Your readers, without even realizing it, will love you for it, because it engages them, it draws them into the story. If you show, you don’t need to tell. If she kicks him in the balls, the reader gets that she’s angry. You don’t need to say it.”
In my personal writing experience, this is one of the hardest things to learn, second only to finding your writing “voice.”
The following is from my newest work in progress, a traditional western.
One of the newer glassy-eyed inmates with a wispy mustache passed us at the same time his stomach growled, looking for a place out of the searing sun and somewhere safe to eat. Swift attacks to steal our twice-a-day allotment usually spilled more than they gained. Escobedo had only been in Purgatorio for a week, and in those few days the slender man lost half of his rations.
He sat only a dozen feet from us norte americanos and wolfed down his meal. The two fresh cuts over one eyebrow and the opposite cheekbone was proof of another hard night.
Andelacio Morales rose from where he squatted with a clot of other prisoners near the long row of outside cells and swaggered across the bare yard. Even me and the boys steered clear of him when we could, but from the look in Morales’ eye, that was about to change.
Morales’ worn-out shoes crunched on the yard’s gravel and sand packed hard by decades of footsteps. The prisoner in for life towered over Escobedo who kept his eyes lowered to the tin plate between his knees. The young man’s head ducked and what little spirit was left in the newest inmate evaporated.
As I said, this piece isn’t yet finished, but this example avoids weak telling words and phrases like “I heard,” (Morale’s crunching footsteps) “He felt,” and “was afraid” (Escobedo’s fear demonstrated in the last sentence). Telling words, and phrases pushes the reader out of the story. Don’t tell us that your characters are happy, sad, scared, giddy (I especially hate that word), hot, hungry, or mad.
You want readers to be in the scene, and not on the outside looking in. Your writing should pull readers into the world you’ve created so they can use their senses based on their own memories and experiences.
Tell: The sound of gunfire reached his ears.
Show: The hard, flat reports of gunfire came as almost physical blows.
Tell: The wildflowers were pretty.
Show: The prairie was a carpet of color, nodding and swaying in the wind.
Tell: He smelled bacon when he walked into the café.
Show: The aroma of frying bacon wrapped him in comfortable memories of vacations and café breakfasts.
Tell: She heard the sound of birds in the trees.
Show: Birds flittered in the branches, and a mockingbird went through her repertoire of songs.
Tell: Bill was divorced.
Show: Bill’s fingers absently went to the pale skin on the fourth ring of his left hand, feeling was as strange as his empty bed.
“You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.” —Richard Price
Show, don’t tell, allows the reader to experience the story through actions, words, subtext, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through your explanations and descriptions. If your character is afraid, let them feel his pounding heart, or the sharp pain in her stomach. A shortness of breath is terror, and the urge to flee is natural.
Pick out a couple of pages in your own WIP and clean them up as I get out of here. Don’t tell readers something is terrifying, like an impending deadline. Show them.
I’m fond of Chekhov’s advice and used it in my Mike Sledge noir pastiche:
“Here and there, through the murk, I could see the lights of Los Angeles spread out below me like a shattered bottle of muscatel glittering in the headlights of an ambulance.”
That’s great! Another caution here for freshman writers, “less is more.” It’s easy to overdo descriptive writing, also. Moderation in all things.
It usually takes a couple of revision passes to catch all my show-don’t-tell errors but it always reads better once they’ve been fixed.
We all do it, but that’s the importance of editing to excess. The result is a more polished manuscript.
I find I get bored with my writing when I’m telling instead of showing… and almost every time the “telling” turns out to be the “outline” or “plan” that needs to be “shown.” If it doesn’t engage me, it sure won’t engage the reader…
Checkhov, in my opinion, was the greatest short story writer of all time. He could write a 4-page story of a clerk having a normal day at work and the reader feels he’s really been some place.
Thanks for the actual prose examples. I’m forever removing those “tell” filters from my writing. In close third person, you can throw details out and the reader knows it’s from the POV character’s senses.
You’re right about close third person. I find that in first person, my storytelling senses open right up. It’s where I’m the most comfortable.
Great examples, Rev. The only time I tell is when I’m transitioning fast from one scene to another. Or maybe from one beat of lesser intensity to one that requires more.
Good learnin’ here today!