Busting Writing Rules: Show, Don’t Tell


General Business

Got a name change for my upcoming pantser book: Writer’s Toolkit: 7 Secrets No One Tells Pantsers.   It’s all the things I wished I’d known decades ago.  Several of the secrets are almost never talked about, which is astounding.

Onto the next installment….

Show, Don’t Tell

Like the “no adverbs” rule, this one showed up on all the top ten writing lists in the major writing magazines.  In critiques, writers are lectured sternly on it and scratch their heads, trying to figure out what exactly they’re doing.

What it Actually Means

 This rule boils down to a basic concept: Use specific details in your descriptions from the character’s perspective and include the five senses.

Busting the Rule

This is a rule that has been oversimplified to the point of making it meaningless.  Unfortunately, not everyone understands it really well to start with.

How can you figure out if you tell too much and don’t show enough?  There are some clear signs:

  1. You’re keeping your description to a bare minimum.
  2. You’re abusing adverbs.
  3. You’re abusing dialogue tags.

It’s pretty hard to show a character is angry if there isn’t any description available to do it.  That results in telling to explain that the character is angry.

But does that mean telling should be entirely done away with?

No!  And that’s why the absolutes of a rule are such a poor choice.  Saying something like “It took two and a half hours to drive to Santa Barbara” is telling…but really, would your story actually need to show a road trip where nothing happens?  It’s a matter of common sense to figure out where to use telling.

What you can do

Be specific in your details

This does mean ramping up the description skills.  If the room in your romance novel is “perfect,” what does that entail?  Does it smell of main character’s other half?  Why does she like the furnishings?  What memories might they evoke?

There are a lot of places here where you can get specific and have some fun building the characterization.

Just remember—when doing details, use only three at a time.  Then switch to something else, like an inner conflict or a puzzle, and then switch back for details.  You can study this technique in pretty much any bestseller.  In Elizabeth Moon’s Oath of Fealty, the new king wakes up for the first time in his palace room.  We learn what the room looks like and also how uncertain he is about this new place, all at one time.

This is a skill that simply takes practice.  Have fun doing it! You’ll be digging deep into who your character is and that makes the best stories.

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