As a writer, we have many expressions and mantras that both writer and reader alike have heard. Here’s another one you’ve probably heard ad nauseam:
Show, do not tell.
However, a lot of amateur writers get this concept frequently wrong and why is telling so bad anyway?
Let’s start with an example of telling:
Grim unholstered his six-shot, pointing it at Sylvia. He felt angry and growled his fury.
Sylvia was unperturbed by his weapon, laughing defiantly. “If you plan on intimidating me, you’re sorely mistaken.”
He smiled cruelly, “The bullets in the gun are made from cold iron, demon. You’re finished!”
He opened fire, Slyvia screaming in anguish as each bullet tore through her violet flesh.
Is this bad? Isolated, no, not really, but it’s clearly amateurish and if the entire story is peppered with this style of writing, then it’s bad. The reason why is I’m telling the reader Grim is angry. I am telling the reader Sylvia was unperturbed. I am telling the reader Sylvia not only laughs, but how she laughs. I told the reader how Grim smiled and I told the reader how Sylvia screamed (okay that last part was really bad, but you get the point).
Understand that “show vs. tell” is a reader’s trend. At one point, it was perfectly acceptable for writers to tell the reader of the emotions and actions of the characters instead of showing. Read any 19th Century or early 20th Century literature. And if attention spans continue to get shorter and shorter, this trend may reverse itself and I may be writing a post about “tell, do not show.” I’ve been reading negative reviews of readers wanting just this thing (I’ll get into why in a moment)
So, how to avoid telling? Here are three rules to help you:
- Don’t use emotive words in the narrative at all. An easy test on yourself is if you have any emotive words. Angry, happy, sad, etc. Get rid of them.
- Use body language to describe the emotion. Instead of writing, He was angry, write, He grimaced, baring his teeth, nearly snarling. But you want the reader to feel a particular kind of rage, you say? Let the readers decide that for themselves. Don’t try to control that part of the process of writing for your reader.
- Mitigate or avoid adverbs. Adverbs are like salt. It’s okay to use one sparingly here and there, but overuse ruins the whole meal. A lot of adverbs is lazy writing. She laughed defiantly tells me how she laughed, and on top of it, how do I picture defiance? Instead, let’s go with, She folded her arms and proceeded to laugh, a raucous bellow that shook the room.
So, here’s the caveat of showing vs. telling and this is how I’ve seen this in the form of negative reviews. Showing increases your word count–considerably. It forces you to be more descriptive. Even if you chose a minimalist approach to describe an emotion, you’re still going to have more words than a simple, He was angry. In the example above, that was three words vs. seven. In the other example, that was three words vs. a whopping fifteen. Some readers hate this because you have writers who can literally spend a page and a half describing a gate-opening scene (George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you). It’s beautiful, it’s immersive, but it’s long. So be aware when you’re being descriptive or you’re laying it thick on the purple prose.