If you’ve been interested in writing for a while then chances are you’ve heard the phrase “show-don’t-tell”.
I first heard it when writing screenplays, and I think that helped me to understand the concept better, because a screenwriter might write the following:
“MAGGIE comes into the room and nearly stumbles over a body. She looks down at the floor and gasps as she realizes the dead man is her soon-to-be ex-husband who has been stabbed with the letter opener he gave her when she stopped modeling and decided to go back to law school. Maggie screams then runs away.”
That’s what the script says.
But what does the camera see?
“A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN comes into the room and nearly stumbles over a bleeding dead body. She gasps then runs away.”
In the first example the reader is TOLD all about Maggie and her husband and that she used to be a model and is a lawyer now. It’s what some writers (Jennifer Crusie among them) call an infodump.
I hate infodumps. (And so does she.)
Isn’t it more fun to see one of the homicide detectives recognize Maggie and ask if she used to be a model? I’d like to hear them question her about her divorce and why a pretty lady like her would want to read all those thick books.
I want characters. I want dialogue. I want action.
In short, I don’t want to be spoon-fed. I don’t want to lose out on the “what does that mean?” moment that might keep me reading to find an explanation instead of having the explanation dumped in my lap.
This is the first way I ever learned about show-don’t-tell, and I think it’s a good one.
But it’s important to note that show-don’t-tell has many forms and applications. Here are a few:
—narrative passages & descriptions.
Some Show-Don’t-Tell fanatics say that we should avoid “telling” words like was. If you’re starting out this isn’t a bad idea. (It isn’t necessarily a good idea either.)
An author can write, “The sky was blue.” Or the author can say, “White clouds floated across the blue sky.”
In the first the author tells us a piece of information. In the second she paints us a picture.
(But please don’t think this means we need detailed descriptions of every little thing…boring!)
—character feelings and emotions
Show-don’t-tell also applies to what our characters are feeling. Here, I think authors have three options:
Either saying what the character is feeling, showing those feelings through some physical act, or .
There’s nothing that annoys me more than reading something like:
“Julia was so furious she slammed the door.”
Really? Julia was furious? I never would have guessed. (That’s me being sarcastic, by the way.)
I didn’t need to be told Julia was furious—the door slamming was enough for me.
—Backstory or other information
For some people, “was” is where the show-don’t-tell debate begins and ends, but I believe it’s actually a much, much bigger issue.
Remember Maggie, the ex-model who finds her dead husband on the floor? Well, the first passage above is the kind of thing I see all the time in books I don’t finish
The author tells us a lot about Maggie when we meet her.
But won’t some of that be apparent once Maggie starts talking and thinking and interacting with people?
And if it’s going to be apparent later, why tell it now?
And if this info about Maggie isn’t going to be apparent later—if it isn’t going to be important—then why tell me about it at all? I’m far more interested in the dead body on the floor.
For me, infodumps are going to either be redundant or forgotten, and worse, they take me out of the scene I was just getting settled into.
All of this is my opinion. You can disagree with me—a lot of people do. Books are subjective things, and this is probably the most controversial subject I’ll cover here…still I felt it should be covered.
For me, great books require audience participation—who did it? What does that mean? What happened in their past? Where did that letter opener come from and why is she staring at it?
I want to think, hear, taste, and feel. If I don’t, I won’t finish that book.
So how do you write a book readers want to finish?
We’ll get into that next.