The First Commandment of Writing
by Deborah Owen
Show, Don’t Tell is not only the writer’s first commandment, it is the one broken the most. This strange phrase, Show, Don’t Tell, means we must learn to paint pictures of emotions instead of telling them outright; however, some things must be told. Examples of works that tell are:
- Newspaper articles: The robber was last seen heading south on Main Street.
- Most magazine articles: Joseph Hanson resigned his position with the GOP on March 26.
- Advertisements: When you have a stain, Shout it out!
- Journals: I had a lousy day today.
You’ll notice one common denominator in the statements above. Every statement is flat and descriptive. That’s what telling is. It’s very shallow writing. Cut and dried. Matter of fact. Dull and boring. A listed description is always telling.
Don’t say, ‟Roberta was jealous,” or “She had coal black hair, dark brown eyes, long lashes, and the cutest rosebud lips you ever saw.” Instead, release descriptions a little at a time, in one or more scenes. For example:
Lisa sighed and pushed her coal black hair out of her eyes.
“My boyfriend virtually drowns in her chocolaty eyes. I’ll bet she wears false eyelashes,” Roberta said.
“Nah. They’re hers, alright. I have brown eyes. That’s no biggie, but I’d give my arm to have rosebud lips like hers,” Eleanor replied.
The first thing you’ll notice is that telling the facts took only 15 words, but showing them took 52. You may notice that we have two writing laws in conflict. The first says to show all emotions, but the second says to cut down on words. The more important of these two laws is showing, which always takes three to four times more words than telling. Don’t worry about the added verbiage.
Let’s look at more examples:
Instead of writing this flat statement, “He works out at the gym and has a great physique,” we could show his muscular form with dialogue. A girl could see him and text her friend, saying, “Wayne just came out of the gym wearing one of those tight muscle shirts. Wow! What a hunk!”
Another way to show is by using internal dialogue ([thoughts] – although editors don’t like internal dialogue these days). Let’s say you have a scene in the kitchen where a woman is angry. She could throw pots and pans to express her temperament, or she could think, I could literally place my hands around her skinny little neck and slowly squeeze the life out of her. Notice that some types of showing still have a little telling in them. (By the way, internal dialogue is always expressed in italics.)
Or we could view the woman through another character’s eyes, like this:
She stood stock still, right hand on her hip, and one foot patting the floor. Blood engorged the vessels in her neck and temples as a crimson flush crawled from her collar upward. We knew it was time to get out of Dodge.
More ways to learn showing:
- Read stories printed within the last five years and pick out showing sentences.
- Review your own work and look for telling sentences.
- Observe people and make a telling statement about them, then change it to showing.
Learning to show emotions and attitudes is an advanced technique that takes months to learn. Be patient. It will come in time.
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