“Show, don’t tell“, they say to us. Our earliest grade school English teachers, our idolized authors in interviews, right on up through our grad school MFA professors. It’s so easy. Just stop telling us everything and let something be illustrated by the action of the story. Just take a step back and let the story unfold. Show, don’t tell, for goodness’ sake!
So why is it such difficult advice to follow? Why do we struggle to show and not tell?
If we want to understand how to show and not tell, then I think we need to understand why it’s so difficult to follow this old common-sense advice. We love our favorite books for doing it, but for some reason we can’t manage to do it in our own writing. And it all boils down to a few fundamental reasons. These are the reasons that “show, don’t tell” is sometimes painful, sometimes counter-intuitive — but nearly always worth trying.
This is the big reason that we just can’t help ourselves and insist on over-explaining a poignant moment or spilling a character’s entire back story in the first page. We are fundamentally lacking in confidence as writers; we aren’t sure of our own talents, and so we overshare in an anxious attempt to prove our story, to apologize for it. When we over-explain, we’re telling our readers that we know this character isn’t interesting enough on his own, but if you’ll just please read on, you’ll see that he also has lots of interesting problems, so won’t you please, please read?
How to fight it: It’s time to grow a little backbone. Your writing will never improve until you have confidence that it will improve. So take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are in fact a writer. You can do this. You don’t have to beg for readers.
2. We want to explain it just right.
We tend to spend a lot of mental time on our novels. We have an idea in mind and we might spend years of our lives getting it just right in our heads, figuring out just how the metaphors and tropes and central conceits are all going to click sublimely together like the workings of some sort of fine Swiss watch. That’s why we want readers to appreciate all this hard work and intricate interlacing. So we over-explain. “See, this scene perfectly parallels this other one,” we want to point out. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” Rather than letting our readers figure out the inner workings for themselves, we want to hold their hands, pointing out the greatest sights.
How to fight it: Step back and take a breath. The pleasure of reading comes from figuring out these things on our own — remember? You should be trying to recreate your favorite reading experiences in your own writing. Write the books you want to read, which are usually the ones that aren’t hitting you over the head with their metaphors.
3. Editing is harder than emptying our brains on the page
The other obstacle in the way of showing over telling is the very way we tend to think about scenes when we’re planning them. We know at the beginning what the scene means and who’s feeling what; we don’t think about it in terms of the hidden gestures and wordless looks that may truly belong in the final draft. So the first draft is likely to be very tell-y. It’s you, emptying out all your thoughts about this scene. More than a scene, a first draft can often be saying, “Here’s what I think has to happen in this scene, and what everyone has to be thinking.” That’s an important first step, but it’s a bridge step to the shore of the finished work, not the finished work itself.
How to fight it: Once you’ve clarified all this on the page and in your head, you can go back and eliminate that bridge. You needed it to get to this new shore, but now you don’t need it anymore. Strike it out.
How do you fight the urge to tell more than you show?