I think pretty much anyone who’s engaged creative writing classes or handouts has heard the phrase: show , don’t tell. Does it help writers as much as some folks who repeat it like to think? Success in fiction depends crucially on being in internal states, and a writer can’t just inform the reader what’s going on. They have to transport those spending time on the book. But, there’s more to this than showing versus telling.
First, let’s go through some examples of what writers here. Nathan Bransford put it this way:
“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? Does he explode? Does he clench his fists?”
Or Dennis Jerz here.
Don’t just tell me your brother is talented… show me what he can do, and let me decide whether I’m impressed. To convince your readers, show, don’t just tell them what you want them to know.
There. I’ve just told you something. Pretty boring, huh? Now, let me show you.
My brother is talented.
There’s nothing informative, or engaging, or compelling about this sentence. You have no reason to believe or disbelieve me, and no reason to care. (TELLING is boring and unconvincing.)
My brother modifies sports car engines, competes in ballroom dance tournaments, and analyzes chess algorithms.
That sounds pretty straightforward and compelling. A lot of writers describe trouble with this concept, but why, especially when the examples above seem pretty obvious. I’ll discuss those limitations in part 2.