“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov
What if, in Charlotte Brontë , Jane Eyre had written, “Jane felt frustrated”? Would we be able to discover that quote in Good Reads in the year 2013? Fortunately, Jane Eyre chose to show us how the character felt, instead of telling us.
“Jane, be still; don’t struggle so like a wild, frantic bird, that is rending its own plumage in its desperation.”
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.”
– Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë,
As Checkov so aptly stated, don’t tell me; show me. The phrase is a common one in writers’ circles, but what does it mean? This video called Descriptive Writing in Simple Terms is a great primer for “Show-Don’t-Tell”.
Dialogue Tags Speak Volumes:
How many of us have heard, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it”? The tone colours the message. We can use this idea to create more engaging writing.
“Said” is the go-to of all dialogue tags — use it but don’t rely on it. Replace “said” with different dialogue tags that convey the tone, mood, and personality of your character. “I’m so angry,” said Sally — versus — “I’m so angry,” Sally shrieked. (Use this strategy sparingly.)
Our social interactions are informed by nonverbal cues. We can replace telling in our writing, with body language that is appropriate to the emotion that our character feels. “Bobby was nervous” versus “Bobby wiped his hands against the front of his shirt, his eyes darting about the room.”
It is important to match the body language to the character’s profile. For example, a nervous boy may wipe his hands on his shirt, but a nervous business man might loosen his tie and pour a scotch on the rocks.
Reading is a form of escapism. A story should take the reader by the hand and lead them to a place of the author’s creating. Consider how sensory input informs us in real life. We use smell, sound, touch, and taste in a myriad of useful ways. For example, combinations of these senses to interpret our surroundings and to assess the people we meet. Readers rely on sensory input to do the same thing in our stories. Telling a list of only what the character sees, will create a one dimensional story. Appeal to all five senses.
Paint a Scene with Descriptive Words:
A stick figure is a legitimate representation of a person. But the Mona Lisa is a representation made masterful by its realism. Five hundred years later, we’re still talking about her. In writing, telling is the equivalent to a stick figure.
James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, could have written a stick person version: The scout held Chingachgook’s hand and they cried.
Thankfully, he wrote this instead: “Chingachgook grasped the hand that, in the warmth of feeling, the scout had stretched across the fresh earth, and in that attitude of friendship these intrepid woodsmen bowed their heads together, while scalding tears fell to their feet, watering the grave of Uncas like drops of falling rain.”
According to Stephen King, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” A point worth noting!
Photo Credit: Anton Chekhov, http://www.famousauthors.org/anton-chekhov (last visited November 19, 2013)