A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
SHOW DON’T TELL is a mantra we’ve all heard – or felt as it’s used as a stick to beat us about the head until our writing brains get the message. The point of the mantra is to remind us that a bald statement of fact isn’t as interesting as a sentence that writes around that fact, using what is on the page to convey something that isn’t on the page inside the reader’s mind.
Think of it like a game of charades: the point isn’t to read out what’s written on the card, but to perform it for the entertainment of your party guests.
As with any writing ‘rule’ though, adhere too rigidly and things can go wrong…
Showing steers us away from writing paragraphs with all the emotional clout of a shopping list:
The house was creepy. Teddy was frightened, but I was not. It would take more than an old house to scare me.
About as scary as someone telling you, “I’m hiding round this corner” versus you seeing a shadow on the ground and wondering what lurks beyond said corner.
So here’s something a little more showy:
The house loomed before us. Next to me, Teddy trembled, his breath quivering on the air, but my heart beat as steady as if we were walking up to our own front door.
The first paragraph is 22 words long; the second is 33. Showing takes more time – and words – than telling. If you meander along every showy path you see, your story will be 50% longer than it needs to be.
Many writers are as in love with the world of their stories as with the story itself. They know every last detail of the clothes, the rooms, the internal machinations of their characters. The SHOW DON’T TELL mantra allows you to show off this knowledge, to share with the reader your perfect vision of the world in which the story is unfolding.
Everyone loves it when someone pulls a party trick out of the bag. But they don’t like it when you do it ad infinitum, because showing off is boring. So here’s another meta-mantra for you that I learned from author Marilyn Edwards: KNOW DON’T SHOW. Know every detail, but don’t feel oblige to share all of them. With any luck, your love and passion for your world will come through in the way you write without having to do a little song and dance each time.
Characters can show their personalities through what they say and everyone loves a good bit of dialogue, right? As an editor, I lost count of the number of authors who told me that children will read pages of dialogue but skip over a dense paragraph of narrative. I mean, there couldn’t possibly be any other variables in play other than the ‘type’ of writing, could there? *cough* more white space makes sentences easier to read and gives the reader the confidence of progressing through the story faster and actually have you ever seen how enthusiastic young readers get for a good bit of food description and… *coughs*
Anyhow, sure humans show their personalities through what they say and their conversations can reveal plot points and hint at things hidden beneath their words. There’s nothing quite like cleverly crafted dialogue to get the reader immersed in the story.
However. Putting narrative words into characters’ mouths is not showing, it’s getting your character to do the telling aka cheating.
“Hey Teddy, you know why we’re here – Neddy needs us, he’s trapped in there and we have to get him out.”
“I know, but what about the man who locked him up in there, won’t he be there too?”
“That’s a chance we’re going to have to take. Come on!”
Sometimes, instead of lines and lines of dialogue where your characters explore the plot, a simple narrative sentence would serve you, your characters, your plot and your readers a lot better.
Teddy knew as well as I did that we had to save Neddy – even if that meant coming face to face with the man who’d taken him.
Sometimes showing the reader a beautifully crafted sentence can create a gentle lull within the story, slowing them down and giving them chance to luxuriate in the prose. They are, after all, here to enjoy the journey, not sprint for the final page as fast as they can. Reading is not a race.
Telling speeds things up.
A novel, like this blogpost, is best served by both showing and telling. You just have to work out which one to use to use where.