Try Me, Don’t Tell Me
Are you sick to death of hearing “show, don’t tell?” How about we try to make it so we never again see it in the margins of our drafts? Do it for the readers.
I’ve found that writing that simply tells what’s going on, what happened in the past, or how someone feels is found most commonly in third-person narratives. It’s often in the form of backstory, description, or summary. You may have seen it labelled as exposition—that is, the insertion of information we want our readers to know.
Good writing means keeping the “telling” to a minimum. Here’s why:
- Telling often insults the readers’ intelligence;
- it’s often boring, long, or, in the case of summary, avoidant (summary avoids scenes);
- it sometimes sounds like a play-by-play;
- it doesn’t let us directly engage with the story’s elements—the characters, setting, events, etc.—the way sensory writing does;
- it often makes us think, “Well, gee, thanks for spelling it out for me. That was obviously for my benefit—except I’m not stupid.” No dumping info or having characters tell each other things they already know. I saw that on Mad Men recently, and it drove me bonkers. It just never sounds natural.
With all of the above points, the result is that we’re pulled out of the story.
Got backstory that’s important for readers to know? Show us through scenes, through action. Launch into it through a flashback that happens as scenes (not a “she remembers when” bit of telling) or reveal it through dialogue, and try to either intersperse it through the story bit by bit or reveal it as late as possible. Use subtext through body language, indirect speech, or the way a character behaves. Let a setting show the history of a place (sometimes exposition is necessary. In this case, don’t tell us what happened. Let the description of the setting show, either with details or dialogue. As always, keep the exposition to a bare minimum. Only what-we-need-to-know stuff.)
Let your readers infer; if you do things right, they’ll get what you want them to. Try them. Trust them.
Here’s a small practical example. Want me to know a character is pissed off? Show me his brand of anger! Does he shake, go red, clench his fists, grit his teeth, yank his hair, punch the wall, shout obscenities, snap his pencil, stamp his feet, write so hard on his paper that it gouges the wooden table beneath, speak low and deliberately between clenched teeth, slam the cupboard door, make his eyes into slits, purse his lips, spit hard on the ground or at someone, throw his coffee, go really quiet and walk off, smash his mother’s tchotchkes, pour himself a whiskey and with closed eyes take a deep breath through his nose? Any of that is more powerful and eye-widening than writing, “He felt so angry.”
Try, too, to avoid redundant exposition. Don’t show me he was angry and then say, “He was just so angry.” If you showed me well, I got it.
The very best thing about our readers is their imagination, which we as writers are supposed to activate. We want to trust that our readers will get what we want from our story through our use of subtext, metaphor, sensory details, dialogue, and action scenes. Good short stories invite readers to read between the lines.
Hemingway said, “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” In other words, respect your reader. Trust that they don’t need you to spoonfeed them.
Here’s another example of showing rather than telling. Say you’re sitting with a group of friends and you have the conch and they want you to tell a story about the bus patrol camp from which you’ve just returned. You were gone for only four days, but in those four days you went from boy to young man.
They’re ready and willing to listen, so you can’t blow it: if you don’t want to find yourself talking to the melting wads of gum in the fire pit, you’ve got to make it entertaining. They don’t want the whole story—say, of when you first became a bus patroller and how you ended up a couple years later getting chosen to go to camp, and how you had to walk all the way with your suitcase and duffel bag to the cabin, blahblahblah. They want one story of something that happened the week you were away. And you have only ten minutes to tell it, because The Walking Dead is going to start and Scott has a big-screen TV inside.
So get to the point. Don’t even start at the beginning. No extra stuff. What are you going to include? What will you leave out? Let’s say you decide to tell about when you and Jenny stole a camp canoe and went to an island by yourselves.
Which is more compelling:
“So Jenny and I stole a canoe and were out on the lake going toward the island, which wasn’t that far from the shore but far enough that I was a bit nervous because I don’t know how to canoe. She showed me how to paddle…
Meh. I’m already bored, even though there’s a bit of foreshadowing there.
“So Jenny grabs my hand as we’re leaving the mess hall after supper and pulls me down the dock to this banged up green canoe. “Get in!” she says. “Hurry, before they see us! I’ll hold the boat. Step in the middle and work your way to the front.” And I try, but I’m wobbling and she’s laughing and purposely rocking the canoe a little. I have to lean down and hold onto the bars and kind of crawl forward. Finally, I get seated and the canoe makes a gliding lunge forward that makes me grab the sides as Jenny pushes off the dock and steps in. Her Crocs squeak on the bottom of the boat as she settles. She taps my shoulder with the tip of a paddle. “You’ve never done this before, ever?” she asks. I shake my head and turn halfway to take the paddle. “Like this,” she says. She shows me where to put my hands and dips her own paddle into the water cleanly, pushes down and back, and then turns her top wrist across the top of the paddle. She’s wearing these cool silver rings all over her fingers that catch the sun, and before I turn back to the front she smiles, looking out through these huge heart-shaped sunglasses at the island ahead.
Etc. It sounds a bit more like writing than speaking, but you get the point. (I think I might actually want to keep writing that, see where it goes!)
You see the difference, though? The first paragraph—who cares? In the second paragraph, we know that you guys are stealing a canoe; that Jenny knows how to canoe; that you don’t and haven’t ever been in one and are feeling a bit apprehensive but you like Jenny and are going along with it; that Jenny is playful; that you’re observant and admiring of her; that you’re not afraid to tell your friends you were a bit scared; that there’s some chemistry between you and Jenny; that she loves being in that boat; that maybe she’s a bit eccentric; and that she’s adventurous. There’s also no mention of life jackets, which could be foreboding. But I didn’t say any of that directly.
That paragraph was definitely longer than the first example. But it took me less than one minute to say aloud, so you have nine minutes left. I think it might be safe to say you have their attention.
Just so you know, going deep and taking the time to show everything, and also stay in scene doesn’t necessarily mean making everything longer. It means writing smarter. Making every word count toward the purpose of the story.
Pretend you want to be my lover. Pull me in and romance me. Don’t tell me what you’re going to do. Show me, and I’m all yours.
Got questions? Use the comment box below!
If you’ve written a story and are having trouble with recognizing exposition, summary, and writing that tells rather than shows, let me help you! The short story critique will set you on the right path.