If one more person told me that writers needed to “show don’t tell”, I might have run screaming from the writers’ conference. I had heard that advice over and over again. I’d read it online again and again in a quote attributed to Anton Chekhov:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
But it wasn’t enough for me to be told the advice. I had to be shown it. And more than that, I had to understand the why and how of the technique. I couldn’t pick it up from just reading books. I like a lot of stories that are more than fifty years old. What was considered “showing” then is classified as “telling” now.
Author/agent Tessa Emily Hall came to my rescue when she recommended the book Understanding Show Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy. I love the subtitle, (and Really Getting It).
Because I really did get it after reading this book. As Ms. Hardy explains, showing versus telling in our writing has become more critical because more and more readers are expecting the literary experience to match movies and TV Shows. She covers many topics that come under “telling” prose — point of view (POV), narrative distance, backstory, info dump, and more. What I found most helpful were lists of words that usually indicate a writer is engaging in “telling”. An appendix conveniently gathers all these word together.
Her chapter “Things That Affect Telling” takes the same paragraph and rewrites it in “showing” prose from first-person POV, third-person single POV, and third-person omniscient POV. She dissects the differences in the writing styles, and that kind of examination is what I really needed.
Another technique recommended by my friend Sharyn Kopf, who is also an author and editor, helps keep me in the showing mode.
Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View
I’ve written about deep POV before. The best way I know how to describe it is imagine yourself in Minecraft or another POV video game. You experience that game solely through your avatar. In deep POV, the reader experiences the story solely through the senses and mind of the POV character as that character lives the story.
Imagining how the character takes in information through the senses and what he or she thinks about this information or the train of thoughts it sets off keeps me from dumping too much information. For example, if my POV character is running for her life from a murderer, she isn’t going to think about how her older sister wronged her in high school. It may be important to the plot, but I have to work that in in a more logical place. Such as when she and friend talk about things they got away with in high school.
I found the chapter “Write Lively, Linear Prose” in Rivet Your Reader with Deep Point of View to be the most helpful. Sometimes, because writers know how all the action is going to end, they write it in the wrong order.
An example from Rivet:
“The hot, stuffy air caused my head to spin.”
If I was writing in deep POV, showing, not telling, I would describe first the character noticing something wrong with his head, then have the character pinpoint the cause. I am paying close attention to the order of my action, so I don’t put the cart before the horse.
Through the month of April, I will dissect examples of both “show don’t tell” and deep POV from my short story, “A Rose from the Ashes” to illustrate what I’ve learned so far about these techniques.
What are your favorite books for “show don’t tell”?
Thanks for the recommendations. Great post!
it was such a relief to find these books. I had to have the technique explained in detail in order to understand it.
I understand that one. I need examples to concrete it in so that I don’t forget it. I’m a visual learner. Once I see it, I understand it. When teaching, I think examples are necessary. Break it down! I think that is one of the problems with students today.
Thank you for the explanations and recommendations!
These books are short, so you can learn a lot in a short amount of time.