What Does Show Don’t Tell Mean In Writing?
I’ll be writing about the video A discussion about Show Don’t Tell – Writing advice and writing tips for writing your book, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
One of the most popular pieces of advice you will be given as an aspiring writer is to “show, don’t tell.” Because that isn’t necessarily as clear as piece of advice as it could be, I’ll be dissecting it and talking about when and how to apply it to your own writing.
Show don’t tell can cover a variety of things, and I’ll write more on the subject in future posts, but a main one is the idea of “summary prose.” Summary prose is when you list activities or descriptions in a way that covers the basics but isn’t your character experiencing them, it’s just TELLING them to your audience. You might do this to cover events in the plot or details about a space they’re in, and it feels very dry, and it distances the audience from the story they’re reading.
Instead of summary prose, SHOW your audience through your characters experiences. Describe your character’s feelings through the events in the plot, show them in action, show them interacting in these situations rather than just telling your audience the situations happened but not letting them be part of it.
Summary prose tells the audience what has happened in a scene, rather than showing the audience the scene itself.
For most cases in stories, summary prose is a bad thing, your audience wants to experience what your character is going through, not just read a list. However, there are occasions when you will need to tell your audience, rather than show them.
You do not necessarily need to show an entire scene to your audience. If a character goes to lunch with a friend, you do not need to show them having a conversation about how they’ve been, how their jobs going, how the weather is. You want to show them the exciting and plot relevant parts of the conversation, the revelation of a murder or the discussion about a lie that’s been found out etc. However, you can’t pretend the other bits of the conversation happened, because that will read as strangely unnatural. Instead, you can tell your audience that they greeted one another and discussed their lives, before going into the main point of the conversation. It will set the context for the scene, but skips out boring details you don’t want to read.
Another time when show don’t tell won’t work in this way, is if you’re spreading your book out over a long period of time. You can’t necessarily show your audience an entire year of somebody’s life, you have to tell them it passed and how it went. Your audience can’t experience that with your character but they need to know it happened, and you can pick out key moments to let your audience experience it with the character, whilst using the rest of the time to world build with quick and simple details.
For the bulk of your story, you want to stick to the show don’t tell rule. Don’t exclude your audience from emotional moments, painful moments, scary moments, or important plot relevant moments. Those experiences should be given to your audience by showing your character’s own responses and feelings about those moments, and allowing your audience to feel part of the story and connected to the character they’re following. Listing descriptions of people or places, listing events that have happened, and listing plot points, is dull and tedious to read, whilst being shown how your character feels about those things is interesting and exciting.
However, tell don’t show can have it’s place if you need to pass a stretch, of time or a moment in a scene, that will just slow down your story and force your audience to experience things that are drawn out and slow and won’t add to the plot in general, but still need to pass by to move to the next point in your story.
I’ll be covering more aspects of show don’t tell in later blogs, and how to use this rule to improve your writing.
You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll be releasing a piece of writing advice every day to help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get!