It’s one of the oldest writing “rules” in the book, and probably dates back to the time they were carving stories on stone tablets: Show don’t tell. You hear this all the time. Here’s what “show don’t tell” means.
What show don’t tell means
With the understanding that “if it works it works,” and there are always exceptions, in general: universal emotions should not be “told.”
It’s not interesting to be told that Brad is sad or Mary is merry.
Instead, we should be shown how the character is reacting to their feelings.
We should see Brad crying or Merry jumping for joy.
Why we find reactions interesting
I’m of the opinion that we read books in order to get to know our fellow humans better. We are empathetic animals and are able to put ourselves in the shoes of characters, and thus, we have a pretty keen idea how we’d be feeling in any given situation the characters find themselves in.
And emotions are universal: we all feel sad, angry, happy, emotional, etc. etc. But how we react to those emotions are completely and infinitely different. That’s what we find interesting when we’re reading books and it’s what show don’t tell means.
Being told that a character is “angry” is not very interesting. We’re reading the book, we know his dog just got kicked, of course he’s angry! It’s redundant to be told that the character is “angry.”
More interesting is how the character reacts to seeing his dog kicked. Does he hold it in and tap his foot slowly? Explode? Clench his fists?
Even if it’s a first person narrative and the character knows he’s “angry,” it’s more interesting for the character to describe how he’s feeling or what he’s thinking rather than saying, “I was so angry!”
Other applications of show don’t tell
This also applies to:
- Physical descriptions – It’s not interesting to merely hear that someone is “pretty.” What characteristics make them pretty?
- Characterizing relationships – It’s not interesting to only hear that two people are “close.” How are they close? What do they do together?
- A character’s thoughts – Rather than diagnosing your characters, show them teasing things out and being more vague with their thinking, just like a regular human being.
Basically, whenever describing something, especially something universal: specificity wins. That’s what show don’t tell means.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Art: Thurston the great magician