Showing You Why We Don’t Tell | NaNoWriMo 2013


On nearly every single writing forum, how to write text, and list of things to avoid in writing–there is one entry that continuously repeats: Show Don’t Tell. One may wonder if a single style rule really deserves so much attention. The answer is ‘yes’ or more specifically ‘yes for the love of god and all that is holy.This isn’t just a fictioneer being snobby however–there are very good reasons why this is such an important lesson.

For starters let’s say you are still in NaNoWriMo. You didn’t give up, you’re still on task, and your novel is coming along just fine. (Hooray, good for you mate!) You notice however that you are coming up on the end of the novel a little too quickly. Worse yet maybe you are already there and don’t know how you covered so much information so quickly.

The quick answer is you likely ‘told’ the story rather than ‘showed’ it to the reader. Look back through your story. Do you notice any info dumps? Places where you vomited words all over your poor innocent readers hoping they could clean themselves off later? Go back to that section and write down all the things the reader needed to know from that section. Now devise a way of displaying all the information without telling the reader directly what happened. You have now added a subplot, two chapters, and maybe even some character development.

Look again through your story. What ‘point-of-view’ (POV) did you write the story from? Is it third person, first person, (oh sweet spaghetti lord say it isn’t so) second person? Whatever the person–check to see if you can speak character’s thoughts and opinions internally. Did you?

If you did, go to those places in the novel. Highlight them, make them twice the size font, and underline it. You must now find a way to say everything that character thought through actions, words, or deeds. If you have a character who is a smug cybernetic assassin who knows they are awesome–don’t tell us. Have they do a triple back flip over some laser piranhas into a flaming hoop while singing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’

Why you ask? Because anyone can tell me they are awesome but a smug self centered jerk is really boring. Have them display why they are a self centered boring jerk by telling another character or acting that way.

Are you seeing a pattern? There may be madness in my methods but it starts to make sense after you fix a few of these kinds of issues. The underlying issue for ‘show don’t tell’ is how it neuters the story. It takes potentially great scenes for your characters to strive and makes them boring, two dimensional, or flat. Taking these scenes and stretching them out forces you as a writer to work harder and your characters to actually grow.

Not only will this enlarge your word count but it also makes you begin to concentrate on using every piece of the story more fully. Take for example a fight scene. If you just say “they fought” it seems really lame. If you instead take the time to say “Henry punched the purple demon in the throat. The Purple demon hissed and kick Henry in the shin” then the story grows and becomes more visual.

Think of everything you put on paper as happening in a movie. If you can visualize it happening–write it. If it would break the pace of the film or seem at odds with the presentation–consider writing it differently.

As always–good luck and happy writing!

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