Review: Understanding Show, Don’t Tell

SDTAs often as Show, Don’t Tell is drummed into us, it’s not always clear how to do it. Telling is sometimes necessary, even desirable in a sprawling novel, and the impulse to perform corrective showing can lead to page-count creep and yield the kind of doorstop-sized novels publishers disdain.

As Janice Hardy states in her new book, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It), (Sept., 2016, Fiction University Press), “Too much shown prose can be just as bad as too much told prose. Which is why understanding it is so valuable. You can’t use it well if you don’t know how it works.” Founder of the Fiction University and author of four books on novel-writing, as well as the The Healing Wars series of fantasy novels, Hardy performs a practical, deep dive into the subject to investigate the choices, big and small, writers make that lead them into the telling trap. 

Hardy begins by putting the question in historical perspective, pointing out that “a hundred years ago, books were filled with told prose and heavy passages of description. Books written as recently as a few decades ago can feel dated and stale to today’s readers. The more visual we’ve become as a society, the more shown we expect our books to be.” It’s a cautionary insight for writers brought up on the classics who hope to publish in this day and age.

Telling From The Start

By necessity, writers fall victim to telling-itis right from the start of any project, during that shitty first draft, when we are sketching out our scenes, ‘telling’ the story to ourselves and perhaps relying, for instance, on adverbs as…

…useful placeholder words that identify an emotion or action until we can come back later and flesh out that idea….“Said angrily” might become a passionate two-page scene between romantic leads during our revision…except sometimes we forget to go back and do just that.

We might pencil in quick summaries of description or setting, or abbreviated character introductions so we can get to the action, conflict and plot twists that are more interesting to write, and in all our revisions we are never inspired to breathe as much life into those passages we do into others.

The telling scourge is also a function of the larger choices we make, such as point of view and narrative distance, which dictate a show-to-tell ratio we may not adhere to during drafting (e.g., the ‘showing’ demands of a close, first person POV story told in real-time vs. the ‘telling’ required by a third person POV, multi-protagonist book covering decades). After drafting, doing a revision focused solely on Show, Don’t Tell with an eye toward how it is affected by these initial choices can go a long way toward curing certain types of telling.

Death by Exposition

Hardy explores how telling happens during exposition, backstory and infodumps, “when we’re trying to convey information to readers and we don’t know how to do it within the context of the scene we’re writing.” Not only do these detours kill momentum, they can insult the reader’s intelligence, as if the writer doesn’t trust the reader to ‘get it’ and needs to step in. “If you’ve ever had someone explain a joke to you, you know how annoying that is.”

If exposition and backstory become necessary, she suggests you “weave your tells in with your shows so readers never get the sense that the author is butting in to explain something to them.” As she demonstrates in her many shown vs. told examples, writers should explain not in the author’s voice—why this is happening, what the character’s thinking or feeling, what happened beforehand to make this moment possible, etc.—but through the voice of the characters, in their desire to live their lives, pursue their own ends and answer their own questions.

The Nitty Gritty of Show, Don’t Tell

The book also addresses Show, Don’t Tell on a granular level, showcasing the many ways we tell—by word choice, syntax and sentence construction—that we may not be aware of. For instance:

Let’s start with a basic example of a common way to tell: I reached over to pick up the cup. You’re likely thinking, “What’s wrong with that? It looks fine to me.”…The first part, “I reached over,” is a physical and demonstrable action. You can physically reach over. “To pick up” is an explanation of why that person reached over. There is no actual picking up of the cup, just the stated intention to do so, and you can’t show intention…Change one tiny word and suddenly this same sentence shows instead of tells. I reached over and picked up the cup. 

Few readers might notice the distinction, but Hardy’s point is that the continued careless and cumulative use of language in this way contributes to the distancing, told effect that poisons storytelling. It can be “the difference between seeing a movie, and having someone tell you the movie.”

Hardy discusses many key words that should be red flags to all writers, and not only the ‘filtering’ words, such as ‘knew,’ ‘saw,’ ‘heard’ and ‘felt’ we are taught to avoid. In addition to prepositions (such as the above ‘to’), she suggests we be wary, among many others, of conjunctions (such as ‘because,’ ‘when’ and ‘as’) that too often lead to explanations of what the reader would rather be shown.

The chapters I found most helpful dwelled on how to identify told prose, the specific words and phrases that indicate telling, and the unconscious ways writers use them—e.g., to explain motivation, emotion and internal thoughts. During my latest revision, each morning I would read a chapter of her book before sitting down with my printout, and it gave me the discipline to identify, red-pencil and, hopefully, fix the sentences and passages that fell into the telling fog.

It doesn’t seem like rocket science, how to Show, Don’t Tell, but this in-depth discussion helped me better understand the power of writing that truly embraces this advice, and how I’ve struggled when I’ve assumed such advice goes without saying.

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