Recently, in my role as something of an amateur writing coach, I’ve run into several beginning writers who all made the same mistake in their work. In my humble opinion, it is the most common conceptual mistakes inexperienced writers make. Show, don’t tell.
Now everyone who has tried their hand at this frustrating gig called writing fiction has heard this rule a time or two. It’s arguably the rule most often drilled into students in writing classes and workshops. Judging by the results I’ve seen, it is still not always understood.
“Show, don’t tell,” refers to dramatizing scenes, instead of narrating them. The best fiction writers use the drama of a scene to reveal their characters, themes, and the plot as it unfolds. They simply present the circumstances to us and let us interpret it as we choose. If they are very good, the scenes and details as they’ve rendered them lead us to the interpretation they desired. Sometimes, they even lead to interpretations that transcend the author’s original intent.
The amateur writer, particularly the beginning writer, often falls into the trap of telling us what he wants us to think, rather than presenting the material and let us draw our own conclusions. They confuse “telling” a story with “showing” us a story that tells itself.
An example. In one of the works I examined, the author writes:
Today, John Wallace, tribal game warden, burst into the office of Mark Schonberg, hatchery manager. He was offered a chair, but was too wound up to accept. He wanted to remain civil to this man he had cooperated with for years, but he was past agitated.
“Damn it, Mark. What the hell is happening out there?”
This is the just the opening paragraph of a scene, but the author misses an important opportunity. She tells us the main character, John, is “too wound up” to accept an offered chair, then, that he “wanted to remain civil to this man” but he was “beyond agitated.” The premise is fine. The situation screams conflict, begins right in the middle of things, and draws our interest, but she is telling us how John feels. She isn’t showing us.
My recommendation to her was that she re-write the scene, this time showing John storming into the office. Mark reacts by offering his colleague a chair, which is refused. Instead, John paces the office, barely able to control his temper. Only then, do we get his angry question. Rather than telling us that her character is “wound up” and “beyond agitated” show us how he acts and let us figure it out.
Another example, a little more subtle, from a draft of my own work:
“Hey.” Debbie looked over at him. “You okay?”
Jason made his mouth form the semblance of a smile. “Sure.”
He didn’t think she believed him.
In the third line, I (through the narrator) am telling you what is going on. I am not showing you her reaction to his statement than he was alright. A better depiction might be She peered at him, frowning.
In both examples, writers get caught in the trap of telling the story, rather than rendering it and laying out what happens before the reader. It’s easier, of course. It’s much easier to tell the reader what happens than depict it, but it is cheating. More than anything else, it’s cheating the reader. And after all, it is the reader we are trying to entertain. Let’s give them credit for being able to figure it out for themselves. And give ourselves the credit that we can artfully depict the scenes our readers need to follow the story.
We don’t need to tell them because we can show them.