Boy, do I hear a lot of grumbling over this one! In online writers’ groups and the Twittersphere and all over social media, the “in vogue” response to this is no—show vs tell is outdated.
I bet you’ve heard it too.
To begin, you probably already know this secret—a lot of what you hear from all of the above isn’t worth the 280 characters on the tweet. In today’s writing world, adrift in a vast sea of self-published writers and books, it’s become more and more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
But true answers do exist.
And here’s another industry secret: Traditional publishing is still the gold standard, and you have to be highly skilled indeed to get there. What traditionally published authors know, and self-publishing often misses, is simple:
The rules for traditional publishing matter. It’s what separates the great writers from that vast ocean of the rest.
So let’s examine this one: why does ‘show don’t tell’ matter?
The entire point of a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, is to provide an experience for your reader. That has somewhat gotten lost in this mix as well. This book isn’t just for you, to tell your story, or that of your characters, or to impart some wisdom along the way.
The point is to engage your reader with a people, place, and/or subject that he can relate to.
Showing, creating, evoking all play into fashioning that experience for you reader. It puts him smack dab into the scene, seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, smelling the aromas, and most importantly, feeling the feelings. When done well, your reader is just there.
Your reader doesn’t want to be told something. He wants to be taken on a trip to somewhere, whether that be to Tibet, deep within the psyche, or best-case scenario, both.
As I work with my developmental editing clients, we focus sharply on this. Often, what’s clear in a writer’s head doesn’t translate so well onto the page. Often, jewels are buried under the muck and mire of words. Often a gem of a story is screaming to be seen.
Then, with some newly acquired skills, my writers bring all of it to the surface.
But an entire world of skills goes into this, and my job is to teach those, so writers have these in their toolboxes forever more.
Another funny thing about those rules—once you master them, you can use or break them at your discretion. It’s all, in the end, about that balance.
Now, does this mean you show everything? Of course, you can already answer that. If you did create all aspects of your story, your manuscript would grow into a sprawling behemoth of a book. And, word count truly matters—intrinsically, depending upon genre.
Finding the balance between showing and telling is the whole ball of wax as far as great manuscripts go. And, it’s a tricky set of scales to maneuver.
The litmus test?
Show, create, evoke the truly important parts, and construct telling bridges over those you just need to cross.
The easiest way to begin this is to get behind your character’s eyes. See the world through her lens. Hear sounds as she does, feel the air kiss her skin. Your viewpoint character provides the eyes and ears and nose and tactile impressions, the emotions, through which your reader experiences the story.
With one’s own writing, this can still be somewhat confounding. Working with someone skilled in developmental editing will shoot you over that learning curve, and clear up any confusion.
So do you have to pay hard attention to showing? Only if you want a great book.
Which, of course, you do, don’t you?
So go make your book fabulous!