How often do you hear that old standby “show don’t tell”? Probably way too often. How often has someone been able to explain to you what it means, in a way that makes sense to you? Probably not often.
Ilona Andrews has a post up about “show don’t tell” that I think provides some solid examples for new writers. In a previous post on her journal (prior to her “show don’t tell” post) I made this comment:
I think show, don’t tell is one of the hardest concepts for a large portion of aspiring authors to grasp (and even some published authors). Some people just do it naturally well, but others spoon feed the reader and have a difficult time visualizing how to help the reader visualize. I know this is off topic, but I saw a really fabulous example of show, don’t tell in SIGNS (the movie), last night. I came in at the last 15 minutes, have seen it before, and was really caught by the scene in the coal cellar, where the flashlight is slowly moved to illuminate the son, and we see the alien’s hand creeping around his neck. Then the flashlight is dropped to the floor and we don’t see what’s happening–we see the flashlight being kicked around, hear the sounds of struggle, see the little girl huddled to the side. But not the actual struggle itself. It leaves the viewer to fill in the details themselves–we’re shown enough to fill in the gaps, and what we fill in ourselves is probably even more vivid than actually seeing it. It’s that much more powerful because we were shown without being shown, and I commented as much to my husband. Shown, but not told.
Of course, it works a little different in novels because we don’t have all the senses to work with that movies do, but it’s still the same concept. Letting the reader experience it for themselves. If you’re using a lot of filter words (she heard, he saw–noticed, watched, felt, wondered, looked ) then you might be telling. That’s one of the easier, more concrete clues to look for.
I also think it’s one of those phrases that’s tossed around often by writers in a critique without fully understanding what it means, because they’ve heard it used so much by other people, they just figure it sounds good. But if you’re going to offer that up in a critique of someone’s work, you need to be able to provide specific examples–and help them begin to understand how to fix it.
But, um, that’s just my rather humble opinion 😉 (okay, I’m not really that humble, but it sounded good).
Filter words are one of the things a lot of Samhain authors see in their edit letters and comments of their manuscript from their editors. Imogen was the first one to use it and we all quickly realized how brilliant she is and adopted it into our own letters. It’s an easy way of having an author correct their telling, without actually using the phrase “show don’t tell” which I truly think is used too often without any attempt at an example of how to do the opposite.
Sometimes telling is more global than just those specific examples Ilona used, or than one or two sentences. As an example, let’s say you have a heroine who you tell the reader is very kind. You use narrative:
People often said she was too kind, that she gave too much of her heart to hopeless causes.
And you tell the reader how kind the heroine is. Often, new authors will do this multiple times, in narrative “he’d always told her she was too giving, spent too much time doing for others and not for herself.” and rather beat the reader over the head with it. But the reader never actually gets to see the heroine being kind. All this telling of the heroine being kind, but not ever shown. So the reader is led to believe the heroine isn’t really kind, she just thinks she is. Or the author thinks she is. But the reader doesn’t, because they don’t ever get to see her acting kind.
The same holds true of any character trait you might tell the reader about–being tough, sentimental, stubborn, kick ass, a great spy or otherwise. You can say it as often as you like, but is the reader really going to believe it unless they see it? In fact, you don’t even need to say it, if you’re showing it (and be careful that you’re not telling the reader one thing–ie that the heroine is really smart, but showing them another–like she makes really uninformed decisions.
Don’t beat the reader over the head, give them the credit of being smart readers and being able to figure out what your words are showing them. If you’re not confident they’ll get it, then you need to look at the strength of your writing again and do a better job of showing them.