Last week, I talked about what “show don’t tell” actually means and provided examples of how and why showing the story unfold makes for a better reading experience. You can have a look at that article here: Show Don’t Tell, Part 1. This week, I’ll help you see how telling weakens your writing, and show you how to spot and correct it in your own work.
To Tell or Not to Tell
There are times in your novel when you’re going to have to do some telling. That’s fine. If there’s a lot of information to get across, telling is more efficient. It’s useful if you have to summarize or explain a complex idea (for instance, how a spaceship operates, if you’re writing SciFi). However, people read novels to go on an adventure, and that adventure occurs when you show how the story unfolds, piece by piece. Showing draws readers in and keeps them on the edge of their seats as the plot is revealed. It involves misdirecting, and then ultimately delivering the punchline. The ending of the book, like a good punchline in a joke, should be a little unexpected, clever, and satisfying.
When you tell instead of show, you put up a wall, keeping the reader at an arm’s length from the action. Your reader won’t really know your characters or empathize with them. She won’t care what happens to them, she’ll be bored, and then, she’ll shut the book.
Are You Telling?
No matter how carefully you craft your book, it will often improve when you put it in front of a live audience. The words have been written, but do they have the impact you intended? Is your point coming across? Do people find humor in the funny spots or pathos in the sad ones? In other words, once you’ve completed your draft, find a beta reader. Get someone you trust with a sharp eye and the ability to be honest, yet kind. Ask them what they think.
If your reader says that your book felt flat, rushed, predictable, or that they didn’t “connect” with your main characters…you might have done more telling than showing. These criticisms are classic markers of a lack of storytelling, which is another way to say writing in a way that hooks your reader.
How to Fix It
No matter your genre, readers want suspense. They want it even if they are guaranteed to know how it ends before they start it. Think romance novels, which promise a happily ever after or a detective story, where you know the recurring character sleuth will ultimately solve the case. People are signing up for the journey, not the destination, so make sure to keep them guessing along the way.
One of the best ways to do that is to sell them the loaf of bread crumb by crumb. This means that you want to let the story unfold on a strictly need-to-know basis. Reveal information slowly—don’t give it away all at once. Keep the conflict high and the characters (and readers) guessing. This makes for an emotional experience—stress, hope, anxiety. They sound like negative feelings, but if you’re eliciting them from your reader, you’re doing something right.