“Show, don’t tell” is the most common mantra among advisors to fiction writers. It’s about bringing the scene alive and putting the reader right there, inside your characters, experiencing her fear along with her, feeling the sweat on his brow and his adrenaline racing, your pulse quickening right along with theirs, muscles tensed, ready to leap into action.
A common mistake among aspiring fiction writers is to describe or narrate (tell) events as if they took place at some point in the past, instead of putting the reader right in the middle of the action and showing the events as they occur, in real time, along with the characters’ reactions, feelings, and actual words (direct dialogue).
To clarify what is meant by “show, don’t tell,” think of it this way: Which would you rather do, go see a great movie in a theatre with a big screen and surround sound (“show”), or hear about the movie from someone else afterward (“tell”)? That’s the difference we’re talking about here.
According to Ingermanson and Economy, “Showing means presenting the story to the reader using sensory information. The reader wants to see the story, hear it, smell it, feel it, and taste it, all the while experiencing the thoughts and feelings of a living, breathing character. Telling means summarizing the story for the reader in a way that skips past the sensory information and goes straight to the facts.”
Janet Evanovich considers “show, don’t tell” to be one of the most important principles of fiction: “Instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you're trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life.”
As Jack Bickham says, “Not only does moment-by-moment development make the scene seem most lifelike, it’s in a scene [with dialogue and action and reaction] where your reader gets most of his excitement. If you summarize, your reader will feel cheated – short-changed of what he reads for – without quite knowing why.”
Shelly Thacker points out, “Readers of popular fiction don’t want to experience the events of your novel at a distance; they want to FEEL what’s happening. They want to laugh, cry, hope, worry.” Shelly advises, “Strive for more dialogue than narrative. … Narrative tends to slow things down and usually leads to telling instead of showing…. Showing with action and dialogue creates vivid characters and a fast pace; telling only bogs down your story.”
Also, the bulk of the scene needs to be about a conflict of some kind between characters. No conflict = no scene. According to Jack Bickham, the conflict part of the scene “draws readers out through a moment-by-moment drama, extending the scene suspense with pleasurable agony.”
Of course, you can’t show everything, or your book would be way too long, and it would tire your readers out – or worse, end up boring them. According to James Scott Bell, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.”
The rule, says Bell, is “the more intense the moment, the more showing you do.” That’s the difference between scene and summary. You don’t want to describe every move your characters make at down times, or when going from one place to the other. That’s where you summarize or “tell,” to get them to the next important scene quickly, without a lot of boring detail.
The main thing to keep in mind is to never to tell the reader, after the fact (or have a character telling another character), about a critical scene. Instead, dramatize it in the here and now, with dialogue, action, and lots of sensory details to bring it to life for the reader.
Resources: Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell; The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham; Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy; “10 Tips for a Top-Notch Novel” by Shelly Thacker (www.ShellyThacker.com).
Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.