We’ve all heard the old saying: “Show, don’t tell.” It’s been taken out of context many times, and it’s often dropped in our laps like a rotten fish we’re supposed to turn into a gourmet meal. Now it’s time for show and tell. Here are a few “telling” traps and how to actually escape them.
Ye Olde Info Dump
When you have one character delivering monumental paragraphs of backstory, history, or reasoning, you’ve fallen into the info dump. It’s a frustrating trap. You’re tempted to get all that stuff out of the way and get to the action. But that defeats the purpose.
A good rule of thumb is the three-sentence exposition. If it takes more than three sentences to report, then it isn’t something you should explain all at once. Chop it into bits and sum up where needed, but see how much you can show instead of tell. If you aren’t telling the whole backstory in one fell swoop, you may discover nooks and crannies throughout the plot prime for a visual hint or key aside of dialogue.
Everyone Tells the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Too Much of the Truth
Realistically, people hold a lot back. In high stakes situations, people hold back even more. The art of conversation doesn’t rely on truth, and neither do great characters. What your characters don’t say matters as much as what they do.
Geralt from The Witcher novels is a classic example. He says very little, but the things he chooses to express, his actions, and the empty spaces the author leaves for readers to fill make him an incredibly compelling character.
Emotion Fails to Connect
School reports tell. Novels show. “This happened. Then this happened, which led to this other thing happening.” It’s informative but dry, and it’s an obstacle plot-driven stories often encounter.
We know what happened, but we probably don’t care. Whenever you find yourself with a scene that fails to connect, it’s time to check the show vs. tell balance. You could be missing a golden opportunity to help readers engage with your character. Just step back and ask, “What would show my character’s fear, love, excitement, etc.?” Then go from there. Ignore the plot for a hot minute and just focus on showing.
Scenes Are Too Short
If every scene feels like an introduction or summary, then you may have a telling problem. Telling takes fewer words, and it leaves scenes feeling like they end before they even begin. It’s like telling a friend the plot of a scary movie versus making them see it themselves. You can tell a story in a minute, but the movie takes at least an hour.
There Are No Pieces in Your Puzzle
One of the biggest signs you’ve told instead of shown is an absence of mystery. At the end of the story, there are no puzzle pieces for readers to put together. No twists surprise them. Character progression feels like a math equation.
Showing forces readers to do some of the work. They have to piece together the things you’ve shown, the things you haven’t said, to get the full meat of the story. People remember things they engage with, even minute threads in a story they follow like whispers.
Which of these traps have you fallen into? How did you address them? Share your tips with other writers below.