Firstly, we have a new agency twitter - @BrightLiterary
This will be where we’ll tweet publishing tips, submission information, and competitions.
Go follow it NOW and we’ll wait while you do it!
So one of the things we are tweeting about is publishing tips, and we were amazed today at the retweets and favourite’ings of a tweet about Show Not Tell/Show Don’t Tell. (Thank you to everyone for that!) This got us thinking about this and we decided to write a blog post to go into a little bit more detail on the topic than 140 characters would allow.
Firstly a note: this is one of those general writers ‘rules’ and we use inverted commas because really there are no rules! You can write however you want to write and there nothing wrong with some telling in books. Sometimes you don’t want twenty words to say something you could say in three.
However, we do notice when reading submissions if a book has A LOT of telling, so this post is intended to help with spotting the overuse of telling, not to say that all telling is wrong. Hope that’s clear!
Show Not Tell/Show Don’t Tell is an editorial term used to highlight the parts of writing which tells the reader something, rather than showing it. Telling the reader information means that the reader gets to be lazy and not work out things for themselves. This can lead to the reader getting bored or not really connecting with the characters.
The tweet earlier: Editing today and noticing lots of 'was' and 'were. Remember to show not tell. Replace 'she was cold' with 'she shivered.' Much better!
Using ‘was’ and ‘were’ tells the reader something about the character, rather than showing the reader the something and letting them work out what that means. (it’s also an example of the passive voice, but that’s another blog post entirely!)
It’s probably easier to explain with more examples:
Tell: He was hot so he got an ice cream
Show: Sweat dripped off the tip of his nose as he bent down to grab an ice cream from the freezer.
Show don’t tell doesn’t just apply to physical feelings like cold/heat, it can also apply to emotions.
Tell: I was sad
Show: I buried my head in my hands and cried.
Tell: He was angry with me.
Tell: He glared at me for just a moment too long, and then stormed out, slamming the door as he left.
As mentioned above, sometimes it does mean adding words to show, but it doesn’t always have to be the case like with the tweeted example. Also, like mentioned, there is nothing wrong with any of the tell examples – it’s about using them in moderation and mixing up your sentence structures.
Another specific type of show don’t tell is ‘info dumping’. This is when you tell the reader a ton of things all in one go, rather than showing it through actions and interactions.
Tell: I walked into school to meet Lisa. She’d been my best friend since we were five and she knew everything about me.
I knew everything about her as well, like how she took her coffee and about the fact she still loved Alex even though he’d dumped her.
Show: I walked to my usual spot next to the lockers, a cup of coffee stretched out in one hand.
“Thanks chica,” Lisa said, whipping the cup from my hand. “Didn’t get time for a run last night, then?”
I looked down at my foot tapping loudly on the metal locker door. “Nope. Mum dragged me to the hospital to see Nan. I’m going to go at lunch. You wanna come?”
But she’d stopped listening. I followed her eye line to the door, where Alex stood with all his mates.
“Come on,” I wrapped my arms round her shoulders and turned her body away from him. “Let’s get to class.”
From this second example we are shown that our main character knows Lisa well enough to get her a coffee every day, and that she knows Lisa is still sore after being dumped. The set-up of meeting at their usual spot suggests a real familiarity, and the reader will assume this is something they do every day. We also are shown that Lisa knows our main character well, by her acknowledging her little tick – the foot tapping being her give away that she is stressed and hasn’t had chance to run it off, her usual way of chilling out. It’s by no means perfect and just dashed off quickly for the blog, but you should agree that it does show the relationship better, and leave the reader to do some of the work.
Finally, one other thing to watch out for is ‘exposition through dialogue’ – it’s another form of info-dumping.
An example using the characters above:
“Are you going with Billy to the dance?” Lisa asked.
“Yep. He’s my boyfriend and we’ve been going out for five years.”
“But I think Dead Beats are playing.”
“Oh no! After they kicked him out for punching the drummer last week, he’s not going to want to watch them play. Now I won’t get to wear the dress I’ve been working two jobs to pay for.”
Obviously, this dialogue reads badly in the first place with all this added information, but the main point is that if these two really were best friends, Lisa would know all this information, so it wouldn’t need repeating like this.
Exposition though dialogue is often used when characters recollect or remind other characters of things, ‘don’t you remember when.’ But this should be used carefully. Think about whether the person you are speaking to would know this, or whether you are just using dialogue for the reader’s behalf.
We could talk about this further and with lots more examples, but that’s enough for now! Do remember that this is just general advice and everything in moderation is fine. Rules are meant to be broken, but it’s good to know them anyway!
Please ask any questions in the comments and we’ll try to get back to you.