By Ronda Simmons
Ah, the vicious SDT (not to be confused with an STD, which can also be vicious). If you want to really piss off a writer, just make the old Show, Don’t Tell comment. As in, “Your dialog is fantastic and you’ve definitely done your research on the social habits of mid-century urbanites, but your plot suffers from too much telling.”
That kind of critique gets under a writer’s skin as the most ambiguous, pain in the neck, weak as water comment ever made. And yet, mastering the art of Show, Don't Tell is one of the most important skills a writer needs in her or his tool box.
What does “Show, don’t tell” mean?
Here is the definition straight from Wikipedia, so you know it’s accurate:
Show, don't tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description.
Huh? OK, here’s what it really means:
Telling states facts or opinions and tells the readers what they should think or feel while Showing describes a situation and creates a mental image. It uses sensory detail to let the readers come to their own conclusions.
To put it another way, showing is about dramatizing. Telling is about explanation. Easy to describe, but so hard to do.
Check Out The Difference
Gwendolyn was angry at her boyfriend.
Boring! A better way to show that she is angry is like this:
Gwendolyn slammed the car door and stomped into the restaurant.
“What’s wrong, Gwennie?” asked Bill.
“Nothing,” hissed Gwendolyn. “You wanted to go out, so let's go out.”
Showing often requires more words than telling. Use all of your senses and really get your readers into your character’s headspace. Be specific, use details. To help identify the tell sentences in your writing, search for red flag words that indicate you are telling instead of showing.
They include: to, when, realized, could see, felt, seemed, thought, knew, believed, hoped, after, before, considered, just to name a few. There are some great resources out there when you are ready to dig deeper into “Show, Don’t Tell.”
Google is your friend
A quick internet search will bring you hundreds of articles in almost every magazine, website or blog devoted to the craft of writing.
Foremost among them is “Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (and Really Getting It)” by Janice Hardy. You can get the Kindle version at Amazon for the bargain price of $3.99
Here is an example of a telling sentence from my own writing:
I was cold and wet with a headache that would probably kill me.
Rachel Weaver, author of Point of Direction (Oprah loved it and so do I), correctly pointed out that it is a tell sentence. It is much better like this:
I shivered in the cold rain while the demons inside my head tried to kick their way through my skull.
|A commandment you can break, with caution|
Telling is not always bad
As Chuck Wendig (keynote speaker at the upcoming NCW conference and certified penmonkey) says, "all writing advice is bullshit.” I’ve been told that he knows his shit about bull. Sometimes it’s just more dang efficient to tell your readers that your hero is at the beach rather than writing three pages about sand.
Joshua Henkin says it better here than I ever could: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/why-show-dont-tell-is-the-great-lie-of-writing-workshops
And in the end, remember, you are the author.