7 Writing Rules: #3 Show, Don’t Tell

This is pretty much the Golden Rule of writing. If someone is reading for pleasure, they don’t want to read an instruction manual of how to import data into an Excel spreadsheet. That’s what telling rather than showing comes off as.

Consider this as an alternate version of the Hobbit’s climactic battle scene:

When the goblins and wargs came over the hill toward the dwarves, the humans, elves, and eagles joined in. A giant, tumultuous battle ensued. So hated were the goblins that all the creatures of Middle Earth took up arms against them. The battle lasted for days and a great many creatures died.

It’s quite a bit different from the actual text of the battle in Tolkien’s novel, isn’t it? I even tried to spruce it up a little (admittedly not much).

Think of a romance novel where the main character is a geek who dreams of nothing more than falling in love and someone falling in love with him. When he finally meets the woman (or man) of his dreams, if we don’t experience things with him, if we don’t know his past, if we are just told something like, “As a young nerd, he was often very lonely and wished for some companionship” it just doesn’t have the same impact. We feel nothing. We process it as a fact and we react to it in the same way we would react to Ikea furniture instructions telling up to put peg A into slot Q.

The details, the showing, they bring us into the story, make us part of the reality. They help us feel.

Personally, I think there are exceptions. Sometimes you can just say a few sentences so you don’t beat the reader over the head with something you’ve mentioned before. Sometimes you need to scale back the detail. Another big place where you have to tell and not necessarily show is backstory. Some can be told through dreams, dialogue, and so forth, but sometimes you have to just tell it — but you have to do it well.

I’m rereading the Harry Potter novels and J.K. Rowling is a master of this. Over the span of a few pages, she sprinkles all the details you need in a very clever way. She will put some action and witty dialogue, then follow it with a paragraph or two of an aside where she explains the magical world of Harry Potter. She proceeds with the action, gives some backstory with some mixed amusing observations, then continues. She does this until you have the full story while still taking part in the current story. Rowling tells, and she does it the way it needs to be done. You could do worse than to study the first chapters of her Harry Potter books to see how she does this and does it so well.

Other than this, you want to draw the reader in, so show them the wonders of your imagination; don’t just tell them it’s beautiful.


~ by Darren Endymion on January 19, 2017.

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