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
"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
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
Want more great tips and techniques? Our Inspiration for Writers Tips and Techniques Workbook
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(c) copyright 2001 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved, except
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