Show, don't tell: a beginner's trap for writers and authors.
Showing, not telling. Now this is a problem that many first time writers are guilty of, including me. In fact, even when I heard it was a problem that cropped up in my writing, my second book still had tons of examples. I took in the critique on my books but I am not sure I fully understood how often it occurred until I re-read my own writing.
This is a very simple and easy to do trap that can reduce the quality of writing. The simplest version of telling rather than showing is stating someone is angry, having them yell and saying they slammed their fist on the table in anger. In this instance, you’d only need to say they slammed their first on the table and readers will get the idea. That’s not the only instance where telling over showing hurts the writing.
You’ve created these worlds, these characters, these situations, you want the readers to know the full thought process and dedication you have towards creating all this background. I, for one, dislike songs where the artist says ‘it means whatever you want it to mean’ so I had the opposite approach when writing my books; I wanted to tell the readers what was going on, what it all meant but that really isn’t the right approach with books. You don’t have to have ambiguous or unclear endings or a good vs evil grey area but you shouldn’t just tell the readers what’s going on at every step. If the story is more straightforward, the readers will pick it up. If the plot raises a lot of moral questions, don’t tell the readers which side to be on.
It isn’t just about letting the readers interpret a character’s personality or their state of mind through their actions alone, it also simply acts as a method to not give too much away to the reader. Too much exposition of either the character or the specific situation leaves nothing to be shown.
In the books I have self-published, I was guilty of not only telling the reader how the character felt but also why they felt like it. Sometimes the reason for their reaction was obvious and sometimes it wasn’t but that doesn’t matter if you tell the reader regardless.
For example, if someone is being rude to your character, it would be reasonable for the character to react angrily and you don’t need to tell the reader that they are angry and why that is the case; this treats the reader like they’re an idiot. If your character reacts angrily to something less obvious then the reader can be left guessing why a seemingly innocent comment or action angered the character so much and you can use that to build to something.
In a previous blog post, I talked about making your main character the most interesting character. In it, I said that you can’t have supporting characters tell the main character what their personality is, the main character has to show it themselves. I realise now that this not only applies to the supporting characters but also to the writer. Whether it is through narration, self-narration or explicit dialogue, the writer shouldn’t tell the readers too much about the character and should instead rely on actions.
By ‘explicit dialogue’, I’m simply referring to a statement from the character that leaves the reader in no doubt about the character’s current mood or general personality e.g. ‘Now, I’m mad’. Dialogue doesn’t have to be a ‘tell’ though. The way in which someone speaks, the words they use can be used to great effect to show what a character is like without telling e.g a snobby character may speak to others condescendingly which may be apparent in speech without being direct about it.
Showing allows the reader to make up their own mind, rightly or wrongly, about what an action might mean so you might be able to use that to mess with their minds but you can’t do that if you’re telling exactly how a character feels or how a situation is going down. I’m hoping with my upcoming book, Lizzie’s Dream Journal, that I have addressed these problems from my previous writing to make the story a more open experience.