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THE PART OF "SHOW DON'T TELL" THAT I DIDN'T GET


We’ve all heard it. If you asked almost any writer, student of writing, or writing instructor for the most common critique developing writers hear, their answer would be show don’t tell.


I know I heard it, still do. And it used to frustrate the heck out of me. Gritting my teeth and biting my tongue, I would think, “There! Right freaking there! I’m showing her walking across the room, smiling, shrugging.”


But I wasn’t actually showing. I was moving my characters around the room, walking them across the street, and then telling the reader what they were doing. No matter how much I focused on visualizing the physical space and the characters within it, I was then talking the reader through what I saw. Worse, I was too often telling the reader why the characters were doing what they were doing.


In my defense, show, don’t tell, is a crappy way to articulate the problem.


The problem isn’t giving the reader verbal instead of visual cues. In fact, sometimes the best way to show something is through dialog. What? …No wonder I was confused.


When we say show don’t tell, what we really mean is stop explaining. Instead, give the reader the opportunity to learn things like they do in real life--by observing the words and actions of the people around them, almost always without the benefit of an explanation.


Here’s an example.



“She was so tired of being told to show and don’t tell by writing instructors that she rose half up out of her chair, reached across the table, and slapped him out of sheer pique.”


I certainly hope I never wrote or did anything that egregious. But now that I understand better what the deservedly slapped writing instructor was trying to convey, I would write it thusly:


“It was that phrase again. Show don’t tell. Diana reached across the table and slapped him.”


See? Much better.

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