Show, don’t tell. A very common piece of writing advice that, when mastered, can give you quite the leg up on your work. At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive to rely on pictures instead of words in a novel you’re writing, but the point of the statement is not that you saturate your book with images.
What “show, don’t tell” really means is to show the reader instances of something happening rather than simply telling them. Don’t tell us that the girl was sad, have her slouch her shoulders with hands in her pockets, not speaking to anyone as she walks down the sidewalk in 32-degree rain.
However, like all excellent pieces of writing advice, there is a pitfall buried deep within. “Show, don’t tell” is marvelous advice, especially for new writers, and is a great rule of thumb to have in any situation. But just rules can be followed to the point of robot-like programming, the saying of “show, don’t tell” has a bit more to it than meets the eye.
So what am I talking about? Well, for one, I’m not about to tell you to stop telling rather than showing. I’m just going to tell you what the meaning behind the phrase really is. It’s more than just another way to communicate to the reader what’s happening. Sure, it looks a bit more sophisticated than “I feel angry”, but that’s not the point.
“Show, don’t tell” is the heart of what it means to be a writer. It’s what divides us from the nonfiction writers. In many ways, the job of a writer is to think for the reader: every D&D player wants to go on a marvelous adventure with their friends, but it takes a DM to actually whip up a story. You are the DM, your audience is the player.
So, what exactly am I saying? Well, if you’ve played any D&D at all, you might know that a Dungeon Master should be well-trained in the art of describing things. Too detailed, and it gets so boring that you’d rather watch paint dry. I once had a DM who spent 2 full hours, no cap, to describe the Moonstone Mask in full detail. Even now, I admire his persistence, but I was bored out of my mind.
But that’s not the point: because the players can’t see the fantasy world around them, and the Dungeon Master can’t explain every single aspect of the surroundings, he has to fall back on a few choice words that say a lot on their own. In only fifty or so words, a DM must use enough descriptive language to give the players an idea of what they’re up against.
Here’s the kicker, though: why do so few, well-chosen words work where many descriptive ones fail? Again, it seems counterintuitive that less actually equals more. Because those few, well-chosen words leverage a weapon greater than several walls of text: the theater of the reader’s imagination.
Remember how I said it’s your job to think for the reader? Well, there’s a cheating way. What if you could get the reader to do the thinking for you without letting them know that they’re doing it? Try the theater of the mind: a few choice words will trigger it to work in your favor.
So what does this have to do with “show, don’t tell”? Well, the point of giving a short description of a certain act rather than telling us how it was done doesn’t just serve to tighten up your prose: it’s there to get the reader to work for you. When you show instead of telling, you get the reader to visualize the action instead of making a mental note that Person A was angry on page 236.
This gives the statement a whole new range of meaning. To get the full benefit out of “show, don’t tell”, it should be interpreted more like “show the reader the consequences of certain actions, then have them figure out what happened instead of just telling”. It applies to much more than day-to-day prose, such as plot occurrences that you’d like to keep subtle. Showing is supposed to get the reader to think for you.
“…just give them two and two and let them add it up. They’re going to do it for you. And they’re going to have fun with it. They’re going to play the game with you.”– Ernst Lubitsch, American Director and Actor
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!