Fiction Writing Rule #2

Fiction Writing Rule #2: Show, Don’t Tell

Books are the closest thing to magic. It’s why so many of us nerds love a good novel. Books have the uncanny ability to transport us to new places, introduce us to new people, and take us on unforgettable adventures. But not all books are created equal.

Some sparkle and shake with magic, their very covers casting a spell that binds us to read them. Other books lack luster on the outside, but once their cover has been cracked and their pages unfurled an amazing transformation takes place. And still more books hit the e-shelves with little more to offer than a scratch on the head and a wonder of whether the author was high or just that bad.

In the first of our Fiction Writing Series, we talked about the number one rule of writing fiction—there are no rules. I’m a firm believer in the sentiment that rules are meant to be broken, but not at the expense of great writing.

Today we’re going to talk about one writing rule you don’t want to break.

Don’t Tell When You Can Show

Back when I was a kid, my favorite day of school was Friday. Know why?

It wasn’t because the ending day bell meant the weekend started. It was because Fridays were show and tell days. My friends and I were always trying to trump each other with the coolest most awesome thing to show the class.

Even though it was called “show and tell,” the “tell” part didn’t matter. It was the visual impact of what we held up in front of the class, the “oo’s” and the “ah’s” it caused, that mattered most. I could have stood in front of my class citing my times tables, and no one would have cared if what I gripped in my hands grabbed their attention.

Writing a story is just like show and tell, but better.

How to Show With Words

One of the keys to great storytelling is applying the “show, don’t tell” rule. But how? How do you use words to show something instead of tell?

The truth is there is space for both in your writing. But in order to show and tell well, you must first understand the distinction between the two.

  • Showing is making the reader feel.
  • Telling is for needed narration.

A reader needs to feel your story as much as they read it. Your goal is to create the ultimate episode of show and tell.

According to The Write Practice, “The simplest rule to remember if you’re trying to show is just to be specific.” And this piece of advice hits the nail on the head.

But balance is important. There can come a point where your writing becomes too specific, robbing the reader of the ability to imagine. For example, telling looks something like this:

Rebecca was a tall and attractive woman. Her charm made her immediately irresistible, and her looks were a bonus. All the girls at the club were jealous, which is why no one much cared when she didn’t show up for work.

I call this the lazy author’s solution to getting the story out. It’s fine for a first draft if it helps get the story out of your head. But it lacks luster for the reader.

Instead of telling me Rebecca is tall and attractive, show me. Through words, show me what exactly makes her attractive. Give me a sampling of her charm. Paint me a picture of her appearance so as I read the words vanish and I am transported to a movie in my mind.

Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to avoid constant narration. It can add characterization, provide emotion, and accent mood.

Use of the senses is another way to nail showing writing. Evoke the reader’s sense by giving them a taste of all five senses, especially smell, taste, and touch.

Descriptive writing is another great way to show over tell, but use it with caution. If description becomes too specific, it turns imagining the scene into a chore. Readers will quickly grow discouraged thanks to an overload of detail. Chances are they’ll zone out for a few pages and then either put the book down or try to reread what their brain shut down on.

Avoid adverbs to cut down on narration. Those little words that end in “ly” often take the place of an opportunity to show the reader something with senses or descriptive writing. For example, instead of, “He spoke harshly,” consider writing, “He spoke in short sentences, each dripping with venom.”

Use nouns that evoke imagery. Nouns tend to be the most lazily used words in the English language. For example, most writers will grab a familiar noun when a less familiar one is more descriptive; such as “loud,” “blaring,” and “deafening.” While they may all refer to the same thing, which best fits the specific scene and paints the right picture for the reader?

The act of balancing show and tell in a story is tough. It’s one of the main reasons great authors have great editors. The outside perspective of an editor can make all the difference in a story that tells instead of shows, and that can make all the difference in a book that booms instead of bombs.

3 thoughts on “Fiction Writing Rule #2: Show, Don’t Tell

  1. great writers use a lot of telling in their narratives–but their telling is done with such skill, charm,humor, wit, feeling,etc. that the reader is swept up in the flow. (See, Trollope, Austin,e.g.}


  2. A very helpful post. I struggled with this for awhile. Then I was reading a novel once which had, in my mind, too much telling in it and I suddenly realized the difference. I still need to keep reminding myself of it though. Thanks.


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