A common question fiction writers ask is, “What does show, don’t tell mean?”
Writers have asked me in email or on Facebook, and I’ve heard it in local writing groups. Online writing forums. Twitter. Everywhere.
Here’s an easy way to understand show, don’t tell.
You’ve heard of online dating, right? Of course you have. Bumble, Tinder, Match, OkCupid, eHarmony, and lots of other sites and apps help you find the man or woman of your dreams.
You read through profiles of people in your preferred categories, and you contact individuals who interest you. Or you sit back and hope Mr. or Ms. Hot gets in touch with you.
And in their profiles, everyone “tells” who they are and what they’re all about. Right? Someone might tell you they’re
- laid back
- easy going
- loves animals
- fun with a great sense of humor
- in great shape
- an avid cyclist or runner
- a great cook
- good communicator
- kind, caring, and affectionate
- awesome at massages
- sensual and affectionate
- everything you ever dreamed of
It all sounds great, right? A potential date tells you what and who they are (or what they think you want to hear).
Do you believe what they’re telling you? It could be true, but how do you know?
If it looks pretty good, and you have a couple good chats, you go out with them. And if you’re smart, you’ll hold back your heart until they “show” you who they really are.
It’s one thing to tell someone what you’re like. It’s another to show actions that fit the description. What are you more likely to believe? The telling or the showing?
You don’t marry someone and start a family based on what they tell you in a dating profile. At least I hope you don’t. And (also hopefully) you don’t fall in love or jump in bed with them because of it, either. You need to see some evidence. They need to show you what they’re about.
Telling is one thing. Showing is another.
Is this person walking the walk and talking the talk?
Actions speak louder than words, as the saying goes. And that applies to fiction writing, too.
Don’t write, Brian seemed so sweet at first. Then I realized he was downright evil. Instead, get right into the action and let readers come to their own conclusions.
The door was unlocked, and I stepped into the foyer. The cat lay motionless on the floor, a trickle of red at her mouth. “Brian?” Only echoes responded. Something made me look up. He leaned over the balcony with the same smile he always wore: the smile in his profile pic. I looked at the cat again and back up. He was gone. The door slammed behind me.
And that, my friends, is what show, don’t tell is all about.
What do you think? Share in the comments.