Indirect Exposition - Or to you and me, 'Show, Don't Tell'

'Show, don’t tell’ is a maxim that most writers have no doubt heard, yet it's probably one of the most important phrases to remember in creative writing. It’s very easy for novice writers to relay their entire stories with lots of telling but no showing. What it actually means is the ability to show a reader what is happening, especially at dramatic points or during action, rather than telling the reader everything, as though you’re reading from a shopping list.

For instance, look at the following paragraph:

John came in and put the kettle and fed the cat. He made his cup of tea and read the paper at the table. Then he made some dinner, and watched TV. He locked up and went to bed at eleven o’clock...

This is ‘telling’. It tells us exactly what is happening, but it doesn’t show the reader anything. It doesn’t tell us what John is thinking or feeling, it doesn’t tell us anything about the atmosphere or what might happen. It contains no tension, no conflict and no feeling.

In order to ‘show’ you will need to introduce dialogue, description or interior monologue. Where possible you should utilise the senses – touch, smell, taste, hearing and seeing to help the reader build a vivid picture of what is happening within your story.

John’s scene would be better if expanded with effective description:

John came in from work and switched the kettle on. The cat prowled around his legs, but she seemed nervous, ears pricked for every minute sound she heard, her attention drawn to noises outside. He sipped his tea, looked out of the windows, but all he could see were grey shadows. He made dinner, noticed the cat staring through the window at the darkness, ears twitching. It made him eat quickly. Then he sound of bins being knocked over. He watched the cat, her eyes intently focused on a shadow in the distance. He quickly locked up and rushed upstairs...

The difference in this paragraph is that tension and atmosphere tell us John feels nervous. Use of the cat, her pricked ears and intent staring, the shadows outside, the sound of bins, all these elements show us how what John feels, and is enough to stir the imagination of the reader. Writing is, after all, a partnership between the writer and the reader. It is the art of finding balance, because as a writer, you feed the imagination of your reader, you give the reader just enough information so they do the rest.

‘Show, don’t tell’ doesn’t mean every page of the story has to be written that way;it's not practicable and it makes it impossible to move the story forward to its natural conclusion. You only need to develop important scenes with ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’. That way you can bring your characters and their world to life, through use of thoughts, feelings, the senses, colours and so on.

Sometimes it’s easy to slip into the telling mode too often, so if you find yourself writing things like because, suddenly, there was, just then, as if, all of a sudden then you know you've slipped into 'telling' mode.

Remember, showing is about making the reader feel what is happening. They don’t like to be told, so remember to use the following to help you:

• Rhythm, pace and tone help to show.
• Interior monologue
• Sensory language – use the senses (often underused)
• Description
• Dialogue
• Sense of atmosphere and tension
• Metaphor

Most of all, remember you have a partnership with your reader. You don't have to tell them everything. You provide some elements of information and the reader will fill in the blanks with their imagination.

Next time: Conflicts and themes


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