This advice has nearly become a Creative Writing cliché, and there are certainly exceptions to it, but the principle is sound. Good writing does not merely hand you information, like a travel guide. Critical moments in fiction and poetry require that you allow the audience to engage with your words, to internalize them and to place their own attachment to your (or your character’s) experience. When you “tell” your audience what is happening, you remove the possibility to interpret, you kill nuance, and you bury your voice. It is like you are providing an unappetizing stale cracker to a dinner guest.
When you “show” your reader your scenes, the reader gets a much better idea of what a character thinks, who he is, what he is feeling. Showing often relies on sensory imagery, a sharper focus on the detail of the scene (without overdoing it, of course), a preference of the specific over the general, clever dialogue, or revealing action.
What follows is a stale cracker paragraph: It gives you a general idea, but nothing in the manner of gripping detail. It TELLS, it doesn’t SHOW.
Robert was really mad. His brother had eaten the last piece of cake. Robert loved cake and always had. He had really wanted that last slice. He looked out the kitchen window and wondered what he could do to get revenge. He came up with a great plan. Kevin would never steal his cake again.
I’d like for you to rewrite ANY ELEMENT of this boring paragraph to make the scene come alive much better than it does in my example.
FINAL NOTE – An important point: Sometimes, short, brief prose is necessary, or even better than a “showing” description. We can “tell” to great effect. But a very common error among beginning writers is to over-rely on these more straightforward descriptions. Let’s keep our eyes out for them during our writing and our workshops.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
Come up with more memorable ways of saying or showing these very general statements. Make your reader feel and understand what you mean, don’t just use flat and vague adjectives. Sometimes a single sharp observation can tell volumes about a person or a thing – For example, instead of saying that someone is a cheapskate, show him constantly searching in the crevices of his car for lost change, or introduce a photograph from nine years ago in which he is wearing the same suit that he has on that day. So, what is a better way of showing… (BEWARE OF CLICHÉS! IF IT COMES TOO EASILY, IT’S BECAUSE WE’VE ALL SEEN IT BEFORE!).
He is a slob
She is naïve
He is wealthy
She is smart
He is trying to hide his age
She thinks she is better than everyone else
He is truly bizarre
She is a control freak
(for the people, give a trait or quirk that would reveal the characteristic, for the nouns, come up with a situation that would depict this sharply)
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