Ah, the single most oversaturated piece of writing advice that’s ever been spoke. Every writer who has ever written a blog, made a YouTube video, or started a podcast (I’ve done all three of these) will tell you the secret to success is “show, don’t tell”.
But what exactly does this mean?
Take these two pieces of writing and examine the differences.
If you think about it in terms of a film, the act of showing requires a lot less the act of telling. With a film, the telling would come in the form of a voice over or dialogue (“the tannery was old, abandoned, and had fallen into disrepair”), which takes up much more time than a few seconds of showing the old, abandoned tannery that had fallen into disrepair.
In writing, showing requires more words, thought and creativity, but these are necessary to crafting an interesting and enjoyable read. Writing more words might be a problem if you’re already an overwriter (but you may be an overwriter because you’re showing rather than telling, so that’s great!), but for underwriters like me, this is a way to boost your word count.
So what does “show, don’t tell” actually entail?
First we have to look at the difference between description and narration. Narration, according to Your Dictionary, is “the act of telling a story”. According to Writing Manual, “the job of narration is describing stuff that’s happening.”
Let’s take a look at an example I just came up with.
Jamie took out her well-worn journal and wrote the first thing that came to her mind. The flowers on the windowsill were pretty. She had received them from her sister, who was visiting from interstate. The plane ride, Mallory said, was full of people without masks, and she felt sick just boarding it.
Take a look at the sentences. Jame did this. The flowers were that. Jamie’s sister said this. The narrator is literally telling you something instead of describing it.
The first example is narration. Telling the audience something in as few words as possible. It’s pretty shit writing. It just tells us something instead of describing it to us.
Let’s take a look at description. According to IUP, description “evokes sights, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes. Using description in your writing brings the world within your text to your reader.” Okay, great. The five senses. Should be easy, right? So let’s try something else.
Jamie’s well-worn journal, the pages dog-eared and tea-stained, perched in her hands, the pages filling up with looping and circular letters. The peonies on the windowsill were dazzling in candy pinks and sunny yellows. Mallory’s voice had descended on Jamie, the swarm of people tucked into the sleek twin engine, aisles of them without masks, infection waiting to happen. The thoughts came to her mind; thoughts and words travelled on a symbiotic frequency to create sentences, paragraphs, pages of notes.
You get the picture. This is okay. It’s not great writing, and it never will be considering I spent five minutes on it, three of which were googling how to describe aeroplanes. It also doesn’t really tell us anything about what’s happening. Where did Mallory’s voice come from? Why do we care about the peonies? It doesn’t tell us that Jamie is writing about the things she can see and remember. In modernist literature, the authors pretty much forget the narration and shove it all into description for us to figure out just what the fuck is going on. It makes for a confusing and boring read.
So while some parts of the narration may be too repetitive, and some parts of the description might be too abstract, what do we do? We combine them!
Jamie’s journal was well-worn, with dog-eared and tea-stained pages. As she sat with her legs tucked under her and her pen resting on her bottom lip, her gaze drifted around the room. The dazzling candy pink and sunny yellow peonies sitting on the windowsill were a gift from her sister, who had complained about the amount of people not wearing masks on her interstate flight. They were walking infections waiting to happen.
Hopefully this gives you a better idea of what “show, don’t tell” means. In the next blog post, I’ll be writing about repetition, how to break up repetitive sentences and paragraphs, and why I hate first person POV.
If you have any questions or comments, leave them below! And for the age old question, what should you be procrastinating writing with? Playing ukulele, I guess? I have one. I tried learning but then completely forgot about it because I was writing so much. But it was fun while I tried! It’s a lot easier to learn than a guitar, and a lot cheaper too. Plus with YouTube you can teach yourself anything. Go out and conquer the world! And don’t forget to pre-order DOTV!