Elements of Craft

The First Rule of Writing

Show, Don't Tell. Yeah, that sounds easy, but what, exactly, does show mean?

Let's look at an example: Carey ate breakfast, then he took a shower and went to the store. At the store he met a girl and they talked for a long time. Carey liked her but she blew him off. Then he went home.

Tells you a lot about Carey, huh? Okay -- so this example is really exaggerated, but it hits home the necessity of showing and not telling. What can we do to fix it? We need more detail, especially dialogue and action. Consider:

Carey studied the frozen dinners. He'd had turkey and dressing for the last four days, so salisbury steak would be good for a change. But did he want the Big Man's or the regular?

A scent teased his nose. Not the overwhelming smell of fish and frostbite, but a fresh smell, like the smell of skin just out of the shower. He glanced sideways and saw the most perfect arm he'd ever seen in his life. Long, slender, graceful, full of sinewy muscle and smooth skin. His eyes followed the arm to the shoulder and then the head. Her head. A head covered with long blond hair and containing a face that made his heart stop.

"Hi," she said, her voice rich and melodious.

Carey's mouth didn't work. He tried to return her greeting, but only a grunt came out. He tried to smile politely, but his face erupted with a grin as large and toothy and goofy as a cartoon character's . . .

So now you have the idea. We need details. We need to know thoughts, feelings; we need to smell the perfume, taste the wine, feel the cashmere. Anything less cheats the reader from experiencing our imaginary world.

We also get into the "show, don't tell" problem in less apparent ways. For example, in description. Mary was a pretty girl, with blue eyes and blond hair. That is telling. Consider: Mary's blue eyes glistened with joy, her blond hair bouncing with each step. That is showing.

Instead of saying Molly is a wonderful person, say Molly is always there when anyone needs her. She's the first to arrive with a casserole when someone is sick, the first to send a note of encouragement to those who are troubled, the first to offer a hug to anyone -- man, woman or child -- at anytime.

Instead of saying Sam is a talented musician, let us hear the crowds cheer, let us feel his passion. Take us into his head as he strokes the piano keys:

Consummation of the soul. That's what Sam called the gratification he received from music. When his passion became so intense it begged to be satisfied, pleaded to be released, and he was helpless to resist its urges. When his fingers assumed a life of their own, titillating the ivory keys with the complex music of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, and he became one with the cadence, breathing with the crescendos, his fingers caressing the melody, until everything else faded, everything else disappeared, and only the music existed.

Instead of saying Marci is a spoiled child, let us hear that whine. Let us -- never mind. Just offer her some cheese to go with her whine and forget it. I really don't want to hear it.

Dialogue is another area where we have the opportunity to show or to tell. "I love you," she crooned. "I love you, too," he sputtered. And I cringe. First, using creative dialogue tags (crooned, sputtered) is one of my pet peeves and the topic of a tips page. Second, it is cheap. It is telling, not showing. Let the power of your dialogue and the accompanying action show your reader the tone of voice and the emotion, don't tell them. Consider: "I love you," she said, her voice smooth as her fingers massaged his Rolex. "Love you, too," he said. His glassy eyes roved over her naked body, his mouth too wet and limp to form words properly.

You can't tell us someone is a wonderful person, a talented musician or a spoiled child. We won't believe you. You must show us. Throughout your manuscript, look for any opportunity to show us in real time, to act out, to let us feel. The difference will amaze you.

Want more great tips and techniques? Our Inspiration for Writers Tips and Techniques Workbook is now available for immediate download. Expanded tips, more topics, reproducible worksheets, exercises to practice what you learn and much more--check it out!

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