‘Show, don’t tell’ is the most common advice for up and coming writers. And why wouldn’t it? Knowing the difference between showing and telling are essential when attempting to write good stories. Writers apply it to make those stories as vivid and expressive as possible. It’s what they tell other aspiring writers when asked how to do it properly. A person could go into extreme details about how important it is to use strong specific verbs to convey what you want your reader to see. Just look at any YouTube tutorial on writing and you will see different techniques in how to apply the rule to your advantage.
Unfortunately, this method is down-right terrible. It takes all the aspects of writing and over simplifies it. ‘Show, don’t tell’ means to describe what you are seeing to the reader: what the characters look like, what the place looks like, what are they doing/going/wearing/eating, etc. To some writers, showing is the only way to write while telling is frown upon.
Most writers can use the rule perfectly, crafting colorful descriptions to immerse the reader into their stories. Too bad the reader will still be bored due to the writer’s attempt to make the story as if it could be viewed.
When I was in college, I took a creative writing class because I wanted to learn how to show, not tell. The professor taught me on how to about imagery, using the five senses to describe what I wrote. This trick helped me apply other literary devices, like similes, metaphors, and allegories, into my stories. However, this revelation had me questioning the ‘Show, don’t tell’ method, since it’s part of our writing culture. What purpose did it have, other than to fill up a page in a word document?
Writing is one of the hardest things people have ever done. And it could become a nightmare. But I don’t think that showing more and telling less is going to help a writer succeed in storytelling for two reasons.
The first is that books and movies are too different mediums that requires different perspectives. That’s why people who’ve seen film adaptations of their favorite books would often say “The book was better”. When we read stories, we are looking to deduce what the text is saying to us. We imagine the story by using our individual viewpoints to create the experience. When adopting a book to film, some aspects of the source material must either be changed or altered to produce a feature-length movie while at the same time attempt to recreate that a similar experience that you felt when you read the book. Though most film adaptations get it wrong, some can enhance that experience and give us something new when it can.
When I was a little kid, I use to see a lot of junior novel adaptations of popular movies at my school’s book fair. A junior novel is a reverse adaptation, a movie being adapted into a book. You probably seen them in a book store or most stores with a book isle. I don’t know when the junior novels were created, but I’m going to guess that it was just for exposure. I would not recommend them to anyone, especially for kids who are transitioning from picture books to multi-chapter stories. Junior novels are boring, non-engaging, ultimately pointless, and the perfect example of how not to write books.
The writer shows more than they are telling, like a movie. Books are not movies or television. The writer should take some time to explain what’s going on. And that is why I recommend people to stay away from junior novel adaptations. You don’t feel anything, you don’t get the same experience you felt when you watch the movies, and you waste 20 bucks.
And the truth is that the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ method is extremely opening for interpretation. A writer should show what’s going on in the story, but you should also focus on the importance of what’s going on and write around that.
For example: “Macy was a cute girl” is telling. “Macy had a cute face” is showing. “Macy’s smile could light up anyone’s day” is showing and telling because you’re letting the reader imagine what the girl looks like by pointing out what made the girl cute. It lets you feel what the sentence is about, making the reader fully immersed into your story.
There’s a time to show and there’s a time to tell, but there’s always time to do both. Try experimenting with your works. Use different literary devices, try writing prompts, look up some of favorite writers and analyze the text in their books (be careful with examining YA novels…trust me).
I know that writing is hard and that you need something to help guide you so you don’t feel overwhelmed. It’s okay to feel that way.
Experimenting with words is what I believe truly separates writers from storytellers.
Until we meet again my friends, peace.