Show, Don’t Tell

If you’ve ever received an appraisal from The Manuscript Agency, in all likelihood we would’ve talked about ‘showing, not telling’ at some point in the report. It’s not because we like repeating ourselves, or regurgitating information to make our lives easier – it’s because TELLING, rather than SHOWING, plagues 99% of writers. And it makes a real difference to the quality of your writing.

The definition of SHOWING, NOT TELLING (SNT from hereon):

Showing, rather than telling allows the read to experience the story through actions, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s (read: author’s) interference in the narrative via exposition (‘info dumps’) and narrational commenting. Showing is a method of trusting the reader to decipher the text for the ‘right’ information that will lead them to an understanding of character, setting, narrative developments, important historical elements etc.

Here’s a quick example of telling the reader what you want them to know:

Mr Jones was a fat, ungrateful old man with a tendency towards rudeness. He uses his walking cane to thump the ground, as a way of letting his assistant know that he’s rather unhappy with her, again.

This tells the reader exactly what you want them to know, and it disseminates the information quickly and effectively. But does it make you feel anything?

Here’s the same ‘scene’ where the writer shows the reader Mr Jones:

Mr Jones heaves himself out of his worn, leather chair, using his old oak desk to steady himself as he reaches across for his walking cane. He takes a moment to adjust his balance under his heavy frame, spreading his legs and wobbling in the direction of his assistant’s desk outside his door. His arthritic knees pop and crack their objection under his weight. Pounding the floor with his walking cane, he spits out curses under his breath. ‘Where is that dreadful girl?’ he thinks to himself.

This creates an image, a scene, in the reader’s mind – it invites them to use their imagination and draws them into the narrative. It gives us a strong sense of this character through his physicality. We found out:

  • his name;
  • that he is overweight through describing him ‘heaving up’ and his ‘heavy’ frame.
    We also see his knees crack and pop under his weight;
  • we discovered that he is, potentially, old because he had arthritic limbs and
    walks with a cane, and that he heaves himself up;
  • and that there is an element of impatience in his character through his thoughts
    about the girl;
  • we also get a sense of place: he is in an office (and that this office is not
    a typical fluorescent-lit office – he has an old leather chair and an oak desk).

Of course, you don’t want to spend too long on each and every piece of information, but if information can be released within the action, dialogue etc then it makes that information appear seamless. It gives no more weight to it than is necessary, but it quietly informs the reader of bits of information that ground them in the narrative, give them an understanding of the setting, and helps them to get to know the character in a natural way.

Simply telling the reader what is happening (or what has happened) has the effect of holding the reader at arm’s length – never really allowing them to be a part of the journey or get to know the characters on their own terms.

SNT is a lazy way of writing, and often encourages the writer to skip whole chunks of narrative development in favour of simply telling the reader what is happening. It also shows a lack of trust in your reader (and perhaps your own writing ability) that they will understand what is going on in the narrative if you are not explicitly telling them what is happening.

You want the reader to ‘see’ the action, to create the world in their own imagination
– this way the narrative becomes theirs also. They are more likely to keep reading
because they feel more engaged with the journey the characters are taking.

Have you ever heard the saying ‘actions speak louder than words’?
Telling someone you love them only goes so far, showing them that you love them through the little (and big) things you do consistently shows them that they are loved.

I think I’ve pushed this point far enough now 🙂
If you want more information on SNT, simply comment below and I will be sure to respond, or email me: kit@manuscriptagency.com.au .

About Kit Carstairs

Kit Carstairs has background in book and magazine publishing, academic research, marketing and broadcasting. She has almost a decade of experience working with a wide variety of content including: fiction (adult and children’s), general non-fiction (craft, gardening, home improvement, general DIY, food titles, natural history, general reference, photography) as well as working with corporate (marketing and sales material, business reviews and papers) and academic content (research publications and thesis). Having worked both as a freelance editor and as an in-house editor and project manager in publishing, Kit has a comprehensive understanding of the importance of content development and the need for authors to be proactive in developing manuscripts that represent their full potential. As well as providing manuscript assessments Kit is also able to offer her editing and proofing services (POA) as well as fast and accurate transcribing services (POA). Contact Kit to discuss these services in more detail. Kit lives and works in the inspirational surroundings of the Blue Mountains, in Australia's New South Wales.


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