Do not tell. How Homer describes Helen of Troy? Hers, he said, was “the face that launched a thousand ships.” See, no details! and yet, even today, Helen of Troy is fabled as one of the most beautiful women in the world, all ages confounded.
Show, do not tell, also means that you have to leave out most and highlight only some. This makes the reader become part of the story, filling the gaps in his mind. Descriptions are not ‘pictures’ of a scene, an object, a place, or a character.
Tolstoy said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”
A writer needs to know the rules, so to know when he’s breaking them, but “Show, do not tell” is not one to break.
Note though, everything is said about good story telling, use of proper evocative language, strong active verbs and avoid passive, and other rules, can be broken in dialogues. Characters are not the writer, and they need to ‘speak’ the way everyday people do, and in the spoken language, oh my, we often, more than seldom, happily use and share joyfully all the -ly words in the mighty world
In dialogues the rule is to be true to the character’s voice, not the writer’s voice. Thank the Lord, in dialogues we can break the “rules” freely and speak “plainly“.
It also depends on the POV. If you are writing in the character’s POV: “She looks exhausted”, Julia thought.
is “perfectly” expressed and “rightly so”
But if you narrate…
“Julia visited her friend, and she looked exhausted”
then you are telling and not showing, and you hurt the story-telling
So, in characters voice, what they say and their thoughts, stay true, adverbs and all, but when you narrate though, and this is valid ALSO in 1st person narration, when the character is not ‘talking’ or ‘thinking’, then the writer has to…narrate. And narration is killed by the overuse of adverbs, and by the ‘telling’ without ‘showing.’ And to add a witty comment, why are we striving to achieve a good story-telling when, while writing the story, we strive to show and not tell? We shall call it good story-showing
In the example above, ‘she looked exhausted’, should be replaced by details in the description of how the character looks, what can the writer show so that the reader would think, ‘boy, she looks exhausted’ ?
Just a quick try:
“Her hair was all over the place, one of the buttons in her blouse was undone and she had a dark shadow under her eyes no makeup could hide; the result of another sleepless night.”
Would you say the person above is exhausted and better the message than simply reading “she looked exhausted” ? I think so, and it triggers the reader’s imagination and make the reader part of the story. Another problem with telling is that it suggests impressions and feelings to the reader rather than having the reader come to those conclusions by his immersion in the story without ‘being told’.
When you are describing,
A shape, or sound, or tint; Don’t state the matter plainly, But put it in a hint; And learn to look at all things, With a sort of mental squint. ~Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll)
Nicely put by Lewis Carrol. When writers fill all details and leave nothing to readers’ imagination, they’re patronizing them and keep them at a distance with respect to the story. Writing has a lot to do with being able not to describe everything and let the readers see everything in their mind. Images have to pop out of the page, telling keep them as mere black signs on a white surface. I’d even go to say that good writing doesn’t even show everything. It is an art to find things to keep hidden for the readers to discover within themselves.
‘Show, do not tell’, is related to the Resist the Urge to Explain. When writers don’t have a clear vision of what they are communicating to the readers, the tendency is to explain, to tell the readers what they should see and feel. A tell sign is long descriptions of things that should be obvious—as they are in the writer’s mind—but fear obscures the judgment, and the writer believes readers need more information in order to ‘get it’. Not so!
Besides, readers’ imagination needs to be titillated, so to arouse their lust for the story. An excellent book by William Styron “Shod, Don’t Tell” gives examples of telling and shows you how to show.
“’Tis the good reader that makes the good book; in every book he finds passages which seem to be confidences or sides hidden from all else and unmistakably meant for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader; the profound thought or passion sleeps as in a mine, until it is discovered by an equal mind and heart.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Show the mine, lead the readers into its tunnels, and let them discover the jewels.
So, can you tell me what the above show suggest in your mind and comment with all of us?
Genre – Science Fiction
Rating – PG-13