What You Believe About Showing & Telling Is A Lie

Writerly Maxims: Part one of a series that will improve your writing.

Show Don’t Tell

This is the most common maxims shared to new writers.

Yet, if you were to pick up any book on your shelf and read through a few pages, I’m confident that you’d find at least one, if not more than one instance of a solid tell.

In general “show don’t tell” is not bad advice, and understanding the execution of a good “show” rather than a “tell” is perhaps the most powerful discipline any writer will ever master for crafting a compelling story.

In practice however, those who have delved too greedily and too deep into the realm of “show” often find that they have packed and wordy chapters upwards of 3,000 and more. They have readers who continuously miss important details in critical sequences. These writers become trapped in the exercise of showing rather than creating impactful and concise understandings that are needed to get a reader invested in the story.

The Differences of a Show and a Tell

A good show pulls the reader in and evokes feelings and connections that are not soon to be forgotten.

While a good tell will instead trigger the reader into a more analytical and learning mode.

When something that should be a tell is executed as a show. You’ll often find readers confused about motivations or what exactly you were trying to convey.

While something that should be a show that is executed as tell will have you reader yawning and scanning.

To resolve both these challenges and so many more with our writing we must embrace both the Show and the Tell parts of the craft. For this I’ve adopted my own variation of the Deep Magic. I call these the Writerly Maxims for the Craft of Writing, and I return to them as a first step anytime I am looking to solve problems in my stories.

Writerly Maxim One

Show when you need the reader to feel something, Tell when you need the reader to know something.

A Friendly Challenge

Find any part of your story where a reader expressed that they experienced some confusion and assess for the following:

  1. In the section where they expressed confusion are you showing or telling?
  2. In the section where they expressed confusion did they miss important details, that you had to explain after the reading?
  3. Re-write that section to be the opposite of what it was originally.
    * In other words, if the section is a show, rewrite it as a tell.
    * If the section is a tell, rewrite it as a show.
  4. Write down the 1–3 main ideas the section is trying to convey.
  5. Have a trusted reader review the rewrite and share what they took away from the new section.

Consider what the main goal is for the section in accordance with the maxim, are you trying to create and emotional reaction, or a practical understanding? Show or Tell as applicable.

Alternative: Writing A Brand New Section

  1. Write the section the first time the same way you have been writing.
  2. Write the section a second time and apply the maxim.
  3. Write down the 1–3 main ideas the section is trying to convey.
  4. Have a reader read through version 1 and ask them what the main points they got from the section were.
  5. Have the reader read through version 2, and ask them the same.

See which version better conveys what you are trying to get across whether it’s information or emotion.

If you’re brave enough to take on the challenge let us all know how it goes and what kind of reactions you get from your trusted readers. Make sure to follow me for more Writerly Maxims coming soon!

Fantasy Writer, Marketing Professional, Ex-Game Industry & Self-Help, here to lift up fellow writers and share insights about the craft of writing.

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