No, we are not in Kindergarten, but I have been accused of sounding like a teacher a time or two. Let’s take a look at the much talked about “show, don’t tell,” and its rightful place in your manuscript.
Many writers have a story bursting inside them that they want to tell. Hmmm, tell. After all, storytelling existed before writing. Let’s examine that and see if it can help today. Storytellers would use more than just the spoken word to get a story across. While telling their tale they would use images, sounds, and movement to bring everything to life. They used more than just words to engage their listeners. They would show the story.
Unless you want to forego your book and paint on a cave wall, find a campfire and pick up a guitar, or go to said Kindergarten (most of your stories are not appropriate for that format), then you must use the written word.
To show the reader your story you must give up some control. It’s hard because you have created the story, but you must resist the urge to tell the reader exactly how each character is feeling. Instead allow the reader to see the story unfold through dialog, details and action.
Tell: She ran as fast as she could and jumped on her bed. Kassie was full of fear when she heard dishes breaking.
Show: Her footfalls were heavier than she liked on the wood floor as she ran from the dimly lit bathroom into her bedroom. The moon peeked through her moth eaten curtains that had been sealed shut. The tiny amount of light allowed her to find her bed and jump on it. Kassie was curled in a ball under her covers, but she could still hear plates smashing downstairs. She couldn’t control her breathing and sweat broke out across her brow and on the small of her back.
Now, the reader may take away fear, anxiety, or anger but you must give them that freedom and trust that the surrounding scenes you have crafted will lead them in the direction you want them to go. That’s your job. (Hurl the teacher references my way…now.)
Something else you may notice from the example above is the length. It takes many more words to show. Therefore, you must not show every single tiny bit of your story (gasp) unless you are planning on a 200,000 word manuscript that won’t make it past the query stage. You must tell the reader some transitional information. Let’s rewind to a passage right before the scene above.
Tell: Kassie was getting ready for bed when she heard something.
Show: Kassie was in the bathroom combing her hair in long strokes with a bristle brush. She brushed her teeth with a worn out toothbrush and spit into the rusty sink. She turned and bent down to pick up her old pajamas so she could change. Before she got a chance she heard noises coming from downstairs.
Of course, the “show” passage paints a more vivid picture of the scene, but is it necessary? It is important to highlight the passages that have the most value by showing those and telling the transition scenes that don’t need focus. If you show everything in your manuscript, the important scenes can get lost. Only you can pick and choose. Decide which passages get your story across to the reader.
“Too much telling” will get your story rejected faster than anything. It’s a tricky business, but the best manuscripts have a great mix of fast paced transitions and beautifully crafted scenes that evoke emotion. So, it’s time to show and tell in the best way.
Ella Marie Shupe