We mentioned before that we’re going to blog about the reasons why we reject manuscripts.
At the start of our series of blog posts, let’s talk about the most common reason for rejecting manuscripts: The author told the story instead of showing it in vivid detail.
You have probably heard the old advice “show, don’t tell.”
But what does it mean?
Telling gives the reader conclusions and interpretations. The author summarizes and explains what’s happening in the story.
Showing provides readers with enough concrete details so that they can come up with their own conclusions. The reader witnesses what’s happening in the story in real time instead of getting a secondhand report.
Why is “telling” bad?
If you “tell” too much, readers hear about the events secondhand instead of witnessing it. It distances them from the story and the characters. Readers stop being actively involved because they don’t need to think about what they’re reading. It’s like reading a newspaper: you find out facts, but you’re not emotionally involved. If you read in the newspaper, “A forty-two year old driver was injured in a car crash,” you probably won’t react with strong emotions. But if you witness the accident, if you see the car crash and hear the man’s screams, you’ll feel many emotions. And that’s what readers want: to experience the characters’ emotions along with them.
And that’s what showing does. Showing makes readers active participants who draw their own conclusions and experience the events along with the characters.
Is telling always bad?
No, sometimes it’s better to tell than to show.
If you show something, it takes up more space on the page, so readers will think, “Oh, this is important. I better pay attention.” If you describe even unimportant events in great detail, readers will become exhausted and the important parts won’t stand out anymore.
So when is it better to tell?
Telling is better:
- For mundane tasks (e.g., she ended the call vs. she pressed the little red button on her cell phone)
- For transitions that summarize a span of time or distance, e.g. Three days later.
- To avoid repeating things you already showed
How can I tell whether I’m telling or showing?
There are a few red flags that indicate telling:
- The use of adverbs is usually telling: “You are such a jerk,” she said angrily. Instead, you might write: “You are such a jerk.” She slammed the book shut.
- Using adjectives can also indicate telling. Instead of She was frightened you could write: Oh God, Oh God. Her fingers trembled as she dialed 911.
- Dialogue tags other than said (e.g., “admitted,” “confessed,” “exclaimed”) explain the dialogue to readers. Instead, let the dialogue speak for itself.
- Instead of naming emotions (She screamed in fear), use actions, thoughts, visceral reactions, and body language to show what the character is feeling.
How can I show instead of telling?
- Use sensory detail. Let the reader witness what the POV character sees, hears, smells, and tastes.
- Make sure the action unfolds in real time.
- Use concrete verbs that can be acted out. For example, instead of “he attacked,” you could write: “He swung his fists.”
- Break generic activities into smaller parts, e.g., instead of “she read the newspaper,” write: “She scowled at the Dow-Jones averages.”
- Don’t name character traits. Instead of telling us She was a shy woman, show us how she stutters and stumbles through a conversation with a person she has never met before.
- Choose verbs that are strong and active, not weak and static. Instead of writing The man was thin and wore a coat that was much too big, you could write: His coat hung loosely around his frame.
- Put yourself into your character’s shoes and write the scene from his or her point of view.
We’ll post more advice on point of view in December.
Since this is a blog post about showing, can you SHOW me what “showing” means instead of just telling me?
Sure. Here are a few examples:
|It was hot.||Sweat dripped down her back.|
|He ate dinner.||He cut into his juicy steak. The scent of garlic and herb butter teased his nose.|
|Mandy was a spoiled child.||Mandy threw herself on the floor and flailed her arms and legs. “No, no, no! No! I don’t want stupid vegetables!”|
|She looked tired.||She slumped against the back of her chair. Her eyelids drooped, and her chin sank on her chest.|
|She was overweight.||She heaved herself out of the chair.|
|The pizza was delicious.||Steam rising up off the melted cheese made her mouth water.|
|It was a dark and stormy night.||The wind tore at the trees, hurling icy rain from the pitch-black sky.|
|The house was run-down.||Paint flaked from the window frames. Patches of mold crept up the walls.|
|“It’s not my place to judge,” Hendrika said with her characteristic humbleness.||It’s not my place to judge.” Hendrika lowered her lashes and peered at black-rimmed fingernails.|
|“Get out!” he exclaimed.||“Get the hell out!”|
|The mare sidestepped nervously, and Amy dropped down and soothed her.||The mare snorted and sidestepped. Amy dropped down. “Everything’s fine, beautiful.”|
|Rika had begged Jo to see one of the hospital’s lady doctors, but Jo had refused, saying she needed every dime to start her new life out west.||“Promise you’ll go see a doctor. They got lady doctors at the hospital now.”
“What would they tell me? To rest? To quit working in the mill?” Jo shook her head. “I can’t afford either.”
Rika drilled torn fingernails into her palm. “But maybe there’s a tonic or syrup that can help.”
“I can’t waste money on that. I need every dime when I go west.”
|“Amy! Are you all right? What happened to you?” She had stopped counting how often something like this had happened, and her first thought had always been to make sure that Amy was uninjured.||“Welcome to —” Then Nora’s gaze fell onto Amy’s dress, and her mouth snapped shut. She hurried down the veranda steps. “Amy! Are you all right? What happened?”|
If you have any questions or comments about “show, don’t tell,” please leave a comment. We’re looking forward to some interesting discussions.