I’d like to share a piece of advice that has been repeated to me and others who write. Various teachers have admonished me to be mindful of this even in elementary school. Publishers have also advised me to pay heed with rejection letters that reiterate the phrase: “too much tell and not enough show.” I shudder at the thought of hearing it again. Clearly it must be one of the oldest rules in the writing world and one of the rules that I find difficult to grasp at times. This writer still finds frustration in reading the words: “Not enough show.” So what exactly is the difference between these two rules of writing? And why is it so important? At times it is difficult for me to understand and even more to describe but I’ll give it a try.
I have noticed that the missing “show” is somewhat evident in my review and rewrites especially if I am looking at it. The missing “show” piece has given me the feeling of being less involved in the material when I try to reread it with an objective eye . The story somehow deserted its genuine “story quality”, its entertainment value, and had just delivered a dump truck load of information. In my case I felt as if I had managed to shut the reader right out of the story which is not where I want a reader to be.
Sometimes the novel was written like it was just a beautiful work of prose without action and detail made me feel bored and uninterested and how “life-like” is that really? There was an absence of emotion so that I didn’t feel as though i could remain faithful to the story until the end. My strongly “tell” pieces made me feel like I was getting the story delivered by Detective Joe Friday in Dragnet: “just the facts” When they were all tell with that beautiful prose I felt as if I had just eaten too many sweets. It becomes like I’m being overfed dessert. When I have been successful at a kind of dramatized plot then I could see how my readers would become participants with me in the book. The book was now alive.
Since then I have found that there are a few ways that help me to “show” more in my writing. Granted I am not a seasoned writer but these have worked for me. The first way is through dialogue, both interior and character to character; narration that is kept at a minimum; using props like old books; and flashback. I also try to find ways to put my characters in situations that highlight their strengths or flaws and that make them stand out or shine. I try to include what makes them distinctive by using strong verbs and detailed description so the character struts his stuff. The character gets to display his unique traits; traits that really make him stand out. So if he happens to be a greedy and unscrupulous physician then I will place him in a situation where he has opportunity and motive so that he can show just how he is predatory and unprincipled.
As a writer I am a creator who builds worlds inhabited by would-be people; I build stories where worlds and separate universes are meant to be experienced as if they were real. My goal is to engage and entertain a diverse group of readers. I need to create scenes that my readers can respond to and feel. When it works I find that the pacing of the story is on target; and when it doesn’t the story is lack-luster and monotonous. I still don’t think that I come close to doing enough “show” rather than “tell” but with my continued writing, rewriting and reading I will get it yet. Reading is an enjoyable pastime for me ,both reading and writing them and I sure want to write great ones. Ergo I will continue on my quest for the place where all the secrets to great writing are held. And one day I will grasp that one somewhat elusive concept called “show versus tell”.