Monday, March 19, 2007

Show, Don't Tell

I'm reading a book by an author I haven't tried before. I do this a few times a month to keep current on what's out there and to discover new voices I admire and want to study.

This author, however, irritates the ever-living daylights out of me. She tells instead of shows.

She tells me that the hero finds the heroine funny and takes several sentences to do so instead of showing light banter back and forth and having the hero reluctantly crack a smile.

She tells me the heroine is dizzy and unsteady on her feet due to lack of sleep and lack of food because of the untimely demise of her husband two years ago. This takes three paragraphs. She could show the heroine stumble and respond to the hero's concern with a brief "Didn't get enough sleep" while her thoughts continue "and haven't since Doug died."

She insists on pouring backstory with a heavy hand (even repeating facts I know already) instead of pouring on plot and sprinkling in backstory here and there. I think backstory should be treated like cayenne pepper. A little goes a loooong way.

I find myself rolling my eyes, skipping whole paragraphs, and feeling irritated that I'm told something is funny when so far, it's yet to make me smile.

Want a great example of show, don't tell? Read Linda Howard. Read Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum series. Read Keith Ablow.

Want to know how to fix it in your own writing? Write out what you want to accomplish in a scene. Write the scene using as much dialogue and as little backstory as possible. Then hack ruthlessly.

Use minimum description - just enough to set the scene.

Let dialogue serve double-duty - both moving the story forward and giving the emotional barometer of the character without an additional twelve sentences of ponderous exposition.

Take out every extraneous word or phrase until your scene is a lithe, fast-paced thing of muscle and beauty.

Take your readers for the ride of their life. Show, don't tell.


  1. Show, dont tell. Thats a good motto. And I whole-heartedly agree, not only do I enjoy that in books, but its also a good one to live by.

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  3. Thanks, Anon, for the offer. :) At present, I don't need a moderator but I appreciate your interest.


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