This is the first of several writing technique pieces I’ve been meaning to write. Hopefully you’ll find this useful.
One of the most common critiques in writing is the phrase, “show, don’t tell.” For the beginning writer, and even for the intermediate writer, this can be hard to understand. What do you mean by “show”? And how is that different from “tell”? This is especially painful for new writers who turn their masterpiece in to a critic and get panned for it.
Like all writers, I went through this myself. My first books were riddled with the mistake, almost to the point where it was solely responsible for my ultimate decision to not publish them. When I got my first book back from an editor for the very first time, their summation was (paraphrasing) “It’s not bad, but you need to rewrite it.” That killed me. I was in denial. For three years I gave up on writing.
Only through repetition, practice, and a lot of editing did I finally understand what that phrase means and how to overcome it. Hopefully I can share that with you and make someone else’s journey a little less painful.
Let’s break it down, starting with the error first, and then we’ll go into how to fix it. First of all, what does the editor mean by “tell”? It’s a book, isn’t it? As an author, you’re telling a story! So why is it so problematic?
When an editor is referring to “tell”, they’re talking about author-voice exposition. You have some concept you’re trying to portray and it has its complexities that make explanation difficult. You finally boil it down to a concise handful of paragraphs. Bam! It’s fast, it’s clear, the reader understands the situation and now we can move onto the exciting parts of the story.
This is exactly the wrong thing to do. Every time you put the story on pause and go into exposition mode, you’re taking the reader out of the world. Rather than the immersion you’re attempting, you’re achieving exactly the opposite.
Showing, is, of course, the correct way to go about teaching the reader about your world. But what is the difference between showing and telling? Where “telling” is the author writing out paragraphs of information (also referred to as data-dumping), “showing” is having the characters experience the world you’re trying to tell.
Something that took me forever to understand, is if the characters don’t experience it, it doesn’t matter. And if it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t belong in your book. Seriously, it’s that simple.
Does the character interact with the data you want to explain? Does the background data have any bearing on the decisions your characters are making? Is the data needed for the reader to make sense of the world?
If you answer yes to any of these, then you have to “show” the reader the data. If you answer no, then I can’t stress this enough: DO NOT WRITE IT.
There are a million variations of “telling” the reader and trying to cover all of it would be an exercise in futility. I can, however, give you some basic examples that should help you understand how it is done.
If you’re trying to give background information to a city, or a place, you might be surprised how much data you can convey through description. Rather than a few paragraphs about the storied sieges the city has survived, instead describe the battered city walls, “marred after years of throwing back the barbarian hordes.” Or if you need more specific reference, have a character point out a place where the general of the last invasion was slain in a sortie.
If you need to give history to a character, explain some aspect that is relevant later, or whatever, figure out a way to do it through action. Mail a letter home to mom. Scratch at an old battle scar.
Unveiling the mysteries of your invented world is often one of the biggest challenges to writing. There are a few tools you can use to overcome this problem. The easiest, perhaps, is having the newcomer character, the recent arrival that needs things explained to.
Really, the key concept is action. The characters should experience the world and discover the wonders you have in store. Characters who know everything and don’t need to ask questions are boring to read about, the same way you don’t have a character who is automatically good at everything.
Engage your reader organically, cut away all the needless exposition, and you will have a book that reads a thousand times better and immerses your readers in the world you’re working so hard to create.