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What is Show Don't Tell, Really?


Hey everyone! So I'm currently querying my second novel, WHAT LIES ABOVE, and I had a R&R (revise and resubmit) request from an agent. One of the pieces of advice they gave me was to be careful about how much telling I did. As I began revising the manuscript, this was the #1 thing I had in mind, and I tried to watch for any places where I could "show-don't-tell". But, what exactly does that mean? Every writer has heard the phrase, but it can still be one of the most challenging and frustrating things. You just feel like screaming, Help me! Well never fear.

I've done a lot of research over the years, as well as learning things by trial and error through my own manuscripts. Although show-don't-tell can be confusing, it's easier to understand with some examples. For instance, the quote above illustrates showing vs. telling. Instead of saying, "the moon is shining", describe the moon shining. In the above sentence, it would look something like this: "Pale moonlight glints off the windows, shimmering across the glass." In the latter sentence, the reader can visualize the scene, instead of just being told what it looks like. Here's a few more examples. Take a look at the following sentences and notice the differences -

Telling: The day is hot.

Showing: A trickle of sweat winds down my face. I swallow, my throat dry as dust.

In the first sentence, there is no room for assumptions. The reader is simply told that it's hot outside. In the second example, there is a visual of something actually happening. Here is a distinction between showing and telling, one you can actually evaluate in your writing: "Telling" describes a character or object, whereas "showing" illustrates something actually happening. In which of the above sentences does something happen? The second one. The narrator swallows, sweat runs down her face. The story is in motion. Here's another example, this time with a character-

Telling: Mary is compassionate.

Showing: Mary gently dabbed at the woman's wounds. "It's okay. You're safe now."

Again, action is happening in the second example, whereas the first is telling you a character trait. In which sentence do you actually see Mary's compassion? The second, right. Readers can visualize Mary dabbing at a woman's wounds, telling her everything is alright. As writers, we have to keep in mind that readers are smart. They don't want to be cheated out of a great scene. By simply telling them everything, we are leaving no room for them to visualize. The best books paint a picture, whether it be of setting, characters, or a complex plot. By describing a person or scene, they can make their own assumptions.

Here is another way to think of it: you want every sentence to be reflective of the character's point of view, especially in 1st person. By writing a sentence like "Mary is compassionate", you are speaking like the author, not the character. You are pulling away and viewing the world from afar, which distances the reader from the main character. For an awesome, on-the-edge-of-your-seat story, you want the reader to be right alongside your protagonist 110% of the way. Even in 3rd person, you want them to feel as close as possible to the protagonist(s). Show the world through the character's eyes. This is what agents and other writers ultimately mean by "show, don't tell".

How would your protagonist describe the world and people around them? Let your readers move through the story with your character, not ahead of them.

Do you have trouble with show, don't tell? How have you learned to conquer this important piece in your writing?

#showdonttell

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