SHOW DON’T TELL!
When I first began writing I received the advice: Show, don’t tell. But what does that mean and is it good advice?
It pretty much means what it says. When writing a scene, it is often better if your character or characters describe or act out what you want the reader to see. This might mean the character’s thoughts reveal what he is seeing. Or possibly, the conversation reveals a picture of the setting. Or the action. In any case the author is unobserved and the characters are doing the telling.
Sometimes when I want the reader to see the landscape that the characters find themselves in, I reveal it through their eyes, speech, and/or action. Most of the time such an approach enhances the scene.
For example, maybe a character is approaching a house. Instead of simply describing the house, I might have the character silently admiring it. Like this, What a beautiful house! I’ve always liked homes with white picket fences. And look at the those flowers lining the sidewalk! It’s so beautiful and relaxing.
I made that up on the spur of the moment, but you get the idea. The reader’s imagination is triggered and pictures the scene. Sometimes a character can show the scene better than you can tell it.
But not always!
While that advice revolutionized my writing, I am glad that I haven’t followed it to the extreme. The simple truth is that sometimes it is warranted that the narrator (you) gets involved.
For example, in Refuge: The Genesis Chronicles I described the Majestic Mountains at least in part in a narrative form. While I did use ‘show’ from a character’s viewpoint it would have been almost impossible to describe the mountain without straining the character. In the end I did both. I described in broad, colorful terms the overall view, while later on characters were able to expand or even expound on that view.
In Perished, I described a scene introducing the death of Adam. It went like this:
‘Word spread quickly in whispers, shaking heads, and tears. Visitors walked softly. Outside the news spread house to house, to the shops and soon ships were sailing forth with the news.’
Could I have done that through the characters? Of course I could. But it would have taken longer to get it out. This was only to set the stage for the events that followed. By opting for this approach I created a sense of action that quickly set the stage and prepared the reader – all in one paragraph.
To answer the question Is it good advice, I answer yes, with moderation. As the author you have ultimate control. A general rule of thumb would be to show not tell, but be aware that sometimes telling can be more effective.
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R Frederick Riddle is the author of several books. For more information on him visit his Amazon Authors Page. He is also co-founder and Vice President of T&R Independent Books where his books are featured.