As writers, we’ve all heard the advice, “show don’t tell.” But what does it really mean? And is there ever a time when telling is okay? First, let’s think about this in relation to the reader’s experience. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” For me, Anton Chekhov’s quote best illustrates the concept. As writers, we are trying to paint a vivid, sensory picture for our readers, involve them deeply in the story, and let them feel the action as if they’re inside our character’s mind. We don’t want to merely string a series of facts together.
So, how do we do this through our writing? Here are some quick, effective tips:
- Avoid passive sentence structure. Search your manuscript for the verb was. Example: She was hiding quietly under the table. Change to: She hid quietly under the table. Right away the sentence has more immediacy. The reader feels less like a passive observer and more a part of the action.
- Use powerful verbs. You can go further by choosing a more expressive verb and losing the adverb. Example: She hid quietly under the table. Change to: She huddled under the table.
- Add physical and/or emotional cues. If a character is huddled under a table, and we know she isn’t a child playing hide and seek, a quick glimpse at her physical and emotional state will connect readers to the scene and ramp up the intensity. Let’s add a little more to the above example: Huddled under the table, her body shook. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath, willing the soldiers to pass.
- Use dialogue. But be careful not to sound forced. Dialogue can convey useful information to readers, capture the characters’ emotions, and add to scene tension. Read sections aloud to make sure they flow naturally.
When I’m working on a first draft, I write to get the story out. During the later stages, I finesse the language by focusing scene by scene and sentence by sentence. Here’s a sample passage from an early draft of one of my books, and the final, edited version. The main character has just witnessed a ship crash near her hidden camp in the forest and she’s trying to save the injured pilot:
Draft: She was tired but knew she had to move him out of the ship. She pulled his body over the rough ground, grateful he was unconscious and couldn’t feel anything.
Final: Ignoring the heaviness in her limbs, Caeli gripped him under the shoulders. Grateful he was so deeply unconscious, she dragged him out of the fuselage, wincing when his splintered leg jostled along the rough ground.
The first take gives me the nuts and bolts of the action and a rough view of the Caeli’s experience. The final draft adds more color and vitality to the scene.
When telling works…
Sometimes a character just has to get from here to there. The reader needs to know this has happened, but the details aren’t really important. A brief sentence to update the reader on a setting or location change is fine, as long as the reader isn’t pulled out of the story. In these instances, be brief and avoid info dumping.
Other times, we need to convey a character’s inner thoughts. We can infer emotion from action. For example, a character slamming his fist on the desk probably indicates anger or frustration. But the reader might need to know that he’s just lost his job, or that his flight has been cancelled. Conveying that information in a straightforward way will likely be most effective.
Too much telling in a story distances the reader from the narrative, but it isn’t necessary to show everything either. Strive for balance and don’t be afraid to rewrite a scene several times to play with the language. You’ll know when you get it right!
Philip K. Dick of “Electric Sheep” fame almost never uses “was.” Most other renowned writers, from J.M.Coetzee to George Eliot to Ken Kesey to Patrick Süskind, throw it around liberally. I think that the repeated use of “was” makes for a boring sentence structure: A = B over and over. To fix it you can’t just rearrange that little phrase or clause. You have to rewrite the whole sentence, or it can sound laborious.
I also think using “was” with the verb vs. the simple past tense slows things down. “He ran” sounds more urgent than “He was running.” I pay more attention to strong, active verbs during action scenes, but in general, I always think they are a better choice.