CRAFT MODULE: Show, Don’t Tell!

“Show, don’t tell” is often regarded as a golden rule of creative writing. It certainly is an important skill that all writers should be comfortable in exercising. However, as with all rules, even this one has its exceptions.

 

Definition

The idea of “show, don’t tell” is to allow your reader to experience the story through your characters’ senses, thoughts and actions. It is a way of revealing information by showing (demonstrating through dramatisation) the events of the plot, instead of by telling (summarising or describing).

 

Advantages

The benefits of “show, don’t tell” are that it:

  • Conveys information without directly telling the reader
  • Increases excitement and action
  • Allows your reader to experience or empathise with the actions and feelings of the characters
  • Leaves room for the reader to interpret the story for themselves
  • Makes the point of view of your characters more intimate for the reader

Exceptions

‘Showing’ is hard work for the author. It requires you to expand out whole scenes in order to convey information. For example, instead of telling the reader how a character feels about something, you might have to write a whole scene of dialogue with another character to demonstrate this. Because this is hard work, many authors revert to ‘lazy’ alternatives, such as using adjectives and adverbs as short hand. Wherever it is important for you to get across complex emotions by a character, it is usually better to dramatize a scene through dialogue or action so readers can experience this for themselves.Because of the length and detail required to achieve this, you can’t “show” every single piece of information in a story. There are times when it is perfectly appropriate to have the narrator summarise information. A prologue in a long fantasy series, for example, brings the reader quickly up to speed with events that happened before and orients them in the world of the story. You can also summarise when you need to skip over long tracts of time quickly. “Many years later…” or “After a while…” are examples of this.

Telling isn’t automatically bad, nor is showing universally good. You need to use your judgement about when to deploy different approaches to your writing. However, remember that “show, don’t tell” is a preferable way to achieve good characterisation.

Let’s give it a go!

Now have a go at rewriting your latest story focusing on Show Don’t Tell. Upload it below for your peers to comment on.