Show Don’t Tell: The “Freebird!” of Writer Critiques

Welcome back to all of my reader.

Yes! You, Fred!

Of all the rules on writing, (and in particular storytelling, as opposed to grammar or spelling), the one that gets the most attention is, “Show, Don’t Tell.”

If/when a newish writer submits their work for critique, anywhere, to any online forum in the world, somebody’s going to call out “show don’t tell!”

It’s the Freebird of writer critiques.

So what does it mean? The answer is not as obvious as you think and I’ll tell you why. My first, and year-long continued response to show-don’t-tell, (let’s just call it STD) was to insist that writing is telling. The only thing I’m showing you is the letters of the alphabet and some punctuation marks here and there. Beyond that, there’s very little to show, right?

Writing, almost by definition, is telling things.

So clearly, that’s not what it means. Let it go. Trust me, it’s a tree too tall to climb.

STD essentially means that, as the writer, you should put the reader into your character’s shoes. Provide those little details that show what the character is feeling at that moment.

Don’t tell me The sound scared Betty.

Tell me that Betty could feel her heart throttling too much blood through her veins and her eyes couldn’t focus on anything in particular as the scraping sound drew closer. Tell me that she had a hard time holding the flashlight because her palms were sweaty. Tell me she crapped her pants.

Tell me something so that I, your reader, can better identify with your character, so I’m in tune with what they’re experiencing.

Or, sure, just tell me she was scared. You’re a rebel, go ahead, break the rule.

But like I’ve said before, be intentional on breaking the rule! Have a clear reason in your mind why it’s more important to vaguely glaze over what the character is going through.

Like, maybe write, “The sound scared Betty, but because a pair of hands as rough as sandpaper were closing around her neck, there was little she could do.”

See? Scary Betty is important, but only slightly, when compared to what else is happening at the same time.

Describing a lot of things happening all at once requires you to pick and choose what to show, and what to tell. It’s how you unfold the moment for your reader.

Something I read recently (How To Read A Film by James Monaco) said that writing is a linear art form; the reader has to receive the info one word at a time, unlike movies or paintings. In movies, you can see and hear a lot of stuff all at once, but in a book, you can’t read a car crash like that.

So, sometimes you’ll need to pick and choose when you show-don’t-tell. Because you do want your reader to feel what your character is feeling, right? You do want them to become immersed in your little world for awhile, right?

So there you go, my thoughts on what I think Show Don’t Tell means.

How does all this apply to my rally cry to write wrong?

Don’t even think about STD during the first pass of your manuscript, unless you’re just right there in the moment and you don’t have to pause for it. That first pass is to capture all the crazy crap that’s flying around in your head. Write it wrong as long as you write it, and then you can go back later and find all those opportunities to show what was happening instead of just saying, “Betty’s head fell off.”

Whoever Betty was.

It’s your story, not mine. Nobody’s head falls off in my stories. At least not yet…