“Show and tell” probably conjures up fond memories of kindergarten fun (even if the exercise was a sneaky way to teach you public speaking skills). The two words have been paired since Shakespeare, and the idiom has been around since the 1940s. However, sometime around middle school, many of us probably heard the two words paired in a new way—with one being disparaged and one being discouraged. This came from our English teachers, of course, as they taught young writers to “show, don’t tell,” probably in red pen on a poorly graded essay.
What This Writing Advice Doesn’t Mean
Like many idioms, you may have heard this bit of writing advice—but you may not know what it means. The first thing to understand is that, as with all writing “rules,” this is more of a guideline than an absolute maxim. However, when employed effectively, the advice can turn bad or mediocre writing into strong writing.
The second caveat is that this advice generally applies to fiction or creative writing, such as nonfiction or memoir. However, there is a place for it in almost all kinds of writing except for the highly technical (like scientific writing).
What This Writing Advice Does Mean
Do you have a friend that is a great storyteller—or one that isn’t? What normally makes a person a good or a bad storyteller? Someone’s stories are normally boring when they simply relate—in a monotone, boring procession—the events of the story. A person is a good storyteller when she or he fleshes out the events with details: sensory, emotional, and contextual. This is the embodiment of “show, don’t tell.”
A weak writer might create the following sentence: “We approached the old house, which looked spooky that maybe the rumors about it being haunted were true.” This sentence explains the details of the story. The group, “we,” approaches an old house, which appears “spooky” in some way. This spookiness causes the characters to believe that maybe the house is haunted, as the rumors claim.
However, this description of the events of the writing and the writing itself are practically indistinguishable. When a reader reads that weakly written sentence, she understands the events of the story, but doesn’t “feel” them. Good writing captivates the reader, transporting him into the world of the story.
How to Fix Boring Writing
There are several different ways to fix that weak sentence, but they all have one thing in common: detail. This doesn’t mean writing a wordy floor plan for the “spooky” house, and it certainly doesn’t mean tacking on adverbs and adjectives to every word. Instead, detail can be created with dialogue (what did the characters in the “we” say to each other—what did they think to themselves?), simile and metaphor (how was the house spooky, and what spooky thing can evoke this quality?), or using specific and sensory details. For instance: “‘Guys, maybe this isn’t such a good idea,’ Linda said voice trembling. No one else spoke, their attention dominated by the ancient structure in front of them. The paint on the house might have been blue at one time, but now it was peeling off in charcoal layers, like burnt skin.”
These sentences make events of the earlier sentence finally seem like a story. Dialogue, characterization, and creepy details draw the reader into feeling fear, rather than simply being told that characters are experiencing it.
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