Whether or not you’re a seasoned writer, chances are you’ve heard the 11th Commandment:
It’s definitely the most common writing tip out there.
But how many people know what that means, and how many actually do it? Is it important?
In his bestselling YA novel, The Maze Runner, James Dashner shows us the culture of the kids in his world through the use of made-up slang. He uses creative words like “klunk” (substitute for poo) to showcase the boys’ sense of humor and immaturity while also making it clear that they’ve been isolated.
But then he makes an annoyingly common mistake. He tells us what his words mean, even though the context makes it completely clear. He uses what I call the Kindergarten Method. Show and tell. And, honestly, it makes the reader feel like an infant. Surprisingly, even young adult readers have brains, and they can figure things out for themselves if you give them enough subtle clues. If you show them.
Trust your readers.
Let go of your need to control your readers’ thoughts. If you do a good enough job showing your readers, you won’t have to tell them.
Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games Trilogy, is excellent at showing the reader her characters’ thoughts and motivation through action. In one of the most pivotal scenes in the story, she expertly balances a few of Katniss’s thoughts with engaging action.
(Warning: spoilers ahead if you haven’t read/seen The Hunger Games)
“My fingers fumble with the pouch on my belt, freeing it.
Peeta sees it and his hand clamps on my wrist. ‘No, I won’t let you.’
‘Trust me,’ I whisper. He holds my gaze for a long moment then lets go. I loosen the top of the pouch and pour a few spoonfuls of berries into his palm. Then I fill my own. ‘On the count of three?’
Peeta leans down and kisses me once, very gently. ‘The count of three,’ he says. We stand, our backs pressed together, our empty hands locked tight. “Hold them out. I want everyone to see,” he says.
I spread out my fingers, and the dark berries glisten in the sun. I give Peeta’s hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a good-bye, and we begin counting. ‘One.’ Maybe I’m wrong. ‘Two.’ Maybe they don’t care if we both die. ‘Three!’ It’s too late to change my mind. I lift my hand to my mouth taking one last look at the world. The berries have just passed my lips when the trumpets begin to blare.
The frantic voice of Claudius Templesmith shouts above them. ‘Stop! Stop! Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present the victors of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark! I give you – the tributes of District 12!’” -Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
See how engaging that was? Collins doesn’t even explain what Katniss and Peeta are planning, but she shows their feelings through their dialogue and body language. As a result, we’re sucked into the story. We feel Katniss’s fear, Peeta’s devotion, Templesmith’s franticness. And it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on.
I’ve found that in the writing process, it helps some people to tell in their first draft so they know what they’re going for and come back and show in the revision stage. That’s totally fine. Also, sometimes it’s okay to tell. Having a balance is important, and sometimes it’s better to be direct. Just remember: the key is to get your ideas across in the most engaging way possible. That’s what makes a good story.
Let’s practice making our writing more engaging through showing with an example.
Tell: Barbara was a very tall and confident woman. She liked to be the center of attention, and she was always causing drama. When she saw Jim, a receptionist, she fell in love immediately.
Show: When Barbara strutted into the room wearing a bright pink pantsuit, everyone turned to stare at her. In her three-inch heels, she towered over almost everyone in the room. As soon as she reached the front desk and turned her back to the people in the lobby, a chorus of whispers broke out. Barbara ignored them, flashing a grin at the broad-shouldered man behind the desk. Jim, his name tag read.
By creating a scene with action, we are able to effectively show details about a character while making the reader feel more engaged. In this scene, we show that Barbara is tall by making her tower over almost everyone in the room. We show her confidence by making her strut and wear heels. We show that she likes to be the center of attention by making her wear a bright pink pantsuit. We show that she causes drama through the whispers of people in the lobby. We show that Jim is a receptionist by placing him behind the front desk and giving him a name tag. We hint subtly at Barbara’s romantic interest in him through her grin and by focusing on his broad shoulders.
Now you try!
In the comments, respond to this character description with a short scene (1 or 2 paragraphs) that uses action to show us what he is like:
Archer was an amazing fighter. He was so strong and fast that he could take down five men easily. He was very quiet and seemed distant, but inside him was a strong desire for revenge.
More helpful resources for “show, don’t tell:”