“Show don’t tell” is simultaneously some of the best and worst writing advice in literary land. While there are some very good ways to apply this maxim, no one really means quite the same thing when they say “SDT” and many writers take the wrong meaning from it entirely.
Here are a few different ways misinterpreting “show don’t tell” can lead you astray.
“Show don’t tell” doesn’t mean hiding motivations
Sometimes writers are so wary of “telling” readers things they end up hiding why characters are doing the things they’re doing and how they’re thinking through their choices.
Motivation is so crucial in novels. There are different valid approaches to narrative voices, but it almost invariably pays to make sure the reader understands what’s motivating a character and why, both for the novel as a whole and within every individual scene. Readers anchor to a characters’ hopes like a north star and contextualize a lot of the plot based on what the characters want and why they want those things.
You honestly can’t be clear enough about what’s motivating a character, their hopes and dreams, and what’s at stake for them in the novel. Help the reader understand these elements with precision and specificity.
“Show don’t tell” doesn’t mean eliminating exposition
Crisp and clear exposition is almost a lost art these days. Sometimes writers try to be overly true to their fictional characters’ mindsets within their own worlds, rather than remembering that they need to be storytelling in a way that’s comprehensible to someone who is living on Earth in the 2020s.
The key to exposition is to succinctly deliver the information the reader needs to understand the plot as it’s unfolding. Sure, avoid longwinded info-dumps, but it’s totally fine to hit pause within a scene to provide some information that would help contextualize what’s happening, who characters are, and the key backstories that help us understand what’s unfolding in the story.
Weave exposition naturally into the story. Remember that the reader isn’t as familiar with this world as you are. It’s okay to just tell them what they need to know.
“Show don’t tell” doesn’t mean being convoluted or vague
It’s fine to create some mysteries within a novel, but don’t be so coy with key details that the reader struggles to understand what’s happening entirely.
Sometimes writers are so worried about “telling” the reader things that they devise elaborate means of leading the reader to information, such as static scenes that only serve to “introduce” us to characters that will be important later, rather than just trusting that the reader can be brought up to speed as the story actually unfolds.
It’s often better to be more straightforward. Just give the reader the context they need as the story is moving along. Don’t be convoluted and/or vague unless you’re trying to accomplish something very specific with that approach. Keep things moving.
When to apply “show don’t tell”
So when is show don’t tell good advice? Here are some applications:
- Instead of naming universal emotions like “frustrated,” show the reader how individual characters act when they’re feeling those emotions.
- Instead of utilizing pop psychology concepts to “diagnose” characters with things like a fear of commitment, show the specific ways that diagnosis is manifesting itself. Show the reader the symptoms, not the diagnosis.
- When utilizing physical description, rather than simply calling someone “beautiful,” show the reader the specific qualities that contribute to that character’s beauty.
- When describing a relationship, rather than saying that characters are “close,” show the specific ways that closeness manifests itself.
- Rather than characters thinking and saying precisely what they mean, show things being a little messier and human. Don’t make characters wholly self-aware.
Do you have any “show don’t tell” do’s and don’ts to add? Take to the comments!
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Art: Georges Seurat – Circus Sideshow