What does ‘show don’t tell’ mean, anyway?

Writers are forever being told “show don’t tell.” I even put it on my Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist:

The author is showing and not telling.

But what does this mean? And with every writing instructor in the business teaching this all the time, why do we still see vast numbers of manuscripts—and not only novice writers’ manuscripts—with gobs of “telling” in them?

I have a theory.

Humans continually tell stories. We do it all day long. We tell scandalous stories about what our neighbor did. We tell funny stories about what our kids did. We tell self-deprecating stories about how humble we are.

So when writers start filling their novel with “telling,” they don’t see a problem. They are telling stories.

Everyone tells stories, right? We’re wired for story. So new writers sit down and tell their stories, just like everyone else.

Do you see the problem?

Telling the story about the time I had to drive into downtown Orlando on I-4 in a tropical storm is one thing if I tell it around the water cooler. If I’m going to put it in a novel, it has to be totally different. I can’t tell you I was afraid the wind gusts would blow me off the overpass onto the cross-street. I have to put you in that Toyota Corolla with the beating rain as I white-knuckled the steering wheel, fighting the tug of the howling wind against the car.

Photo © EastWest Imaging • Fotolia

Great novel-writing is not storytelling. Storytelling is the recounting of a series of events. Novel-writing is the dramatization of a series of events through vivid sensory details to create a visceral, emotional experience. Storytelling goes to your brain. Novel-writing gets to your heart.

There are three main kinds of telling I see in manuscripts:

  • Emotional Labeling
  • Inappropriate Narrative Summary
  • Abstract Storytelling

I addressed the issue of emotional labeling back when we were talking about Dialogue: Use speech and action to convey emotion.

Inappropriate Narrative Summary occurs when the author minimizes things that should be played out in full. More on that next time.

Abstract Storytelling often involves a combination of the other two, exacerbated by a lack of visuals. We’ll look more deeply into that after we cover Inappropriate Narrative Summary.

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  1. […] Last time, I said Inappropriate Narrative Summary was one of the main “telling” problems I see i… […]

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