“Show, don’t tell” has been drilled into our heads Ad nauseam. It’s the one “rule” that novice writers flock to, and veteran writers love to hate. How far do we take this advice? What exactly does it mean? Well, today I’m going to show you just how far I go. Over the years, (and multiple books), I’ve seen myself evolve as a writer. I used to “tell” a lot, and frankly, I love the me who “shows” more.
Let’s use the following passage as an example:
“She puffed on her cigarette and looked at me unflinchingly; looking profane without even saying a word. I noticed that she was aging rapidly, the lines around her mouth and eyes were deep. Her hair was pulled back and the greys were prevalent, but, mostly, it was her demeanor that made her seem old, wasted, done.”
“Smoke wafted from her cancer-stick, masking the profane expression she was wearing. The lines around her mouth and eyes were like tributaries. She wore her grey hair in the severe style of nuns who hid beneath their habits. Mostly, though, it was her stoic stance, and thin, expressionless lips, that made her look old, wasted, done.”
The first is a passage I wrote in 2002. The second, I wrote today for the purpose of this article. I’m guessing it’s easy to tell which one “tells” too much. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with the first passage, I love the imagery that the second evokes.
So when is it okay to simply tell? Can any line be weaved into something akin to poetry?
Yes, sure. I.e.:
“He worked overtime. His hunger pangs told him it was time to eat”, versus, “The office was bathed in silence as he worked solo. The sun was falling into slumber, and his stomach grumbled from the deviation in routine.”
However, as the author, it’s you who has to decide which direction to go. Consider your genre, audience and the ambiance you would like to create. To create suspense and brutal imagery, a horror author, for example, might be more inclined to “show”. Consider, too, that you don’t want to exhaust the reader. “His hunger pangs told him it was time to eat”, is a perfectly acceptable way to tell the reader it’s dinner time.
What if your intent, however, is to paint each line purple? I’ve done this with one story I’ve written. The whole novella read like one long poem. It was my intent. I wanted to capture a mood that would envelop the reader and not let go for the length of the story. As long as you make sure you advertise your book in the proper category so that the reader is aware of exactly what they are about to purchase, you can actually write whatever you like. Show lots, tell little. You may even want to tell lots, and show little. It’s up to you as the creator. No rules.
What am I most comfortable with?
What mood am I trying to create?
What resonates with me, the author of this story?
Does it flow, or am I forcing it for the sake of a “rule”?
Is the writing at its best, regardless of “show vs. tell”?
So what really have I said today? That the only thing that matters is that it’s: “your book, your rules.”
If you desire, you can learn to show more, and tell less, but sometimes, “It’s noon and he was hungry”, says it all.
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Barbara Avon is a multi-genre Author. She has written since she was young, pursuing her dreams and vowing to write for as long as she can. She has worked at several different media publications and will continue to publish novels until “her pen runs dry”. In 2018 she won FACES Magazine’s “Best of Ottawa” award for female Author and Spillwords “Author of the Month”. She believes in paying it forward and you can read about this belief as the theme is given voice in most of her books. Avon lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband, Danny, their tarantula, Betsy, and their houseplant, Romeo.