Novel Writing

Show, Don’t Tell: So Overrated

 “Hi Lizard! I have a problem. I like to show instead of tell in my stories, but when I’m hinting at certain things, for example, a character’s feelings through their actions, I feel like it’s too vague?”

One of those things that I think every new writer learns as a first solid piece of advice is “Show, Don’t Tell” and don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad advice to start with, but it is not the end all, be all by any means. So, let’s break this down and talk it out.

First, what does “show, don’t tell” even mean? If you’re really new to writing, you might not have heard this phrase, or it might be that you haven’t heard it in a while and are feeling out of the loop – there’s no shame. Let’s talk it out. “Show, don’t tell” is the writerly advice to write “in scene” – don’t just tell the reader what happened, but show the character moving through the scene, facing challenges and then reacting. It’s not terrible advice. When you’re just learning how to tell a story, the gut instinct is just to say what happened and tell the story. The advice “show, don’t tell” helps add more drama to the story, it lets the reader walk in the character’s shoes, and allows the reader to interpret what is happening for themselves instead of having to take someone’s word for it.

“Show, don’t tell” does a lot of great things, but it does not account for instances where telling is so much more to the point. One of the hallmarks of a new writer – and as I’m working on my first novel, I’m terribly guilty of this – is the pointless shown scene. You might have you characters engaging in small talk, sitting around and drinking coffee. You might even argue that these scenes are completely necessary – I’ve done that too! But truth be told, most of the time, they’re not. Most of the time the reader doesn’t need to know that nothing much happened. They actually won’t mind if the narrator just comes out and says, “And then we went out for coffee” and then, you as the writer skip ahead to the more interesting scene that happens later. Not everything needs to be shown. When writing a novel, you have a somewhat limited number of scenes. Additionally novels all come in with some thematic mission – this story is about Character X looking to achieve Y and while he may do unrelated things in the time that leads up to him working toward his goal, it’s fine that we know about these other side errands, but we often don’t need a scene on it. This is where telling especially comes in handy. Just tell the reader all the stuff they don’t need to know, the stuff that is not important enough to have its own scene.

This isn’t the only instance where “telling” is the way to go. Telling is often incredibly tied to character voice, especially in the first person. We get examples like The Catcher in the Rye that specifically use telling in a way that’s really effective. Holden is all voice all the time. He tells us his story and through his telling, we learn so much about who he is and why he is the way that he is. If Salinger was just going to show us Holden Caulfield running around Manhattan, it would be a very different story.  Many great examples will have a mix of showing and telling within individual scenes and chapters.

The last thing I wanted to talk about is free indirect discourse. I know this sounds like a big, fancy literary term – and well it is, it’s a phrase I love to throw around and sound smart, but really all it means is that the while writing in third person, the author slips into the consciousness of one character and writes their thoughts without tagging them or adding quotation marks. I won’t go too in depth on this, because there is a great definition and example on Shmoop. They do a really good job of explaining it. But using this technique, you can get into the character’s head and share their thoughts and feelings in a way that feels natural within the text. Writers use this constantly. This technique enables you to write a characters thoughts and emotions while still writing in third person, so you don’t have to rely on only action and dialogue to get their point across. Some writers will do this instinctually, but most of us need the examples to learn how to do it. It’ll feel awkward at first, especially if you don’t know your characters thoughts especially well yet, but with time and practice (and dare to take risks) you’ll figure out how to make it work within your own writing.

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