Q&A: “Show, Don’t Tell,” and Drafting

How do I get around overthinking the rule “show, don’t tell” in that even when show and have enough detail in my stories, part of me worries people will mistake it for telling. Sometimes, when I edit, the story becomes overly dense or indirect and the reader needs to do too much work to understand it, which is a bad thing. However, every article online is about the virtue of details, which is the opposite of my problem. I sometimes feel like my first drafts are cleaner and more emotional.

It sounds like the overthinking is leading to a misunderstanding. “Show don’t tell,” is a warning about unnecessary exposition. It will also steer you away from some generic writing habits, towards specificity.

It’s important to remember there are no universal rules about how to write. You’ll develop methods that work for you. The rules, and guides are just there to help you find your method. The vast majority of people produce better results through multiple drafts. If you really are best suited to one and done writing, that’s not wrong, but most people who attempt that produce substandard results.

That said, always save copies of your old drafts. If a revision is inferior to previous draft, don’t use it. You may need to write another draft to address problems that came up, but if a draft is a step down, save a copy, and go back.

The value of a second draft is learning what you need, and what you don’t. It lets you properly set up future events, and eliminate the threads you didn’t use. Chances are, you didn’t fully understand what the story would be when you started, and redrafting is the opportunity to go back and tell the finished story from the beginning.

None of this has anything to do with, “show don’t tell.” Like I said, that has more to do with exposition. For example, don’t tell me about a character’s personality, show it in action. Don’t tell me about their habits, show them. Don’t tell me about character traits, show how they shape their behavior.

It’s easy to get hung up on “show don’t tell,” when you’re working in prose; everything is text, it can feel like everything is, “telling,” and nothing is, “showing.” The critical thing to remember when you’re writing is, simply saying the thing is, “telling.” You, “show,” when it’s presented as part of the world, events, or character behavior.

For example: With a character’s emotional state, simply saying they’re happy would be “telling.” Writing about their body language, tone of voice, and other cues can “show” their mood without having to, “tell.”

Traits are an important concept for writers to internalize. It’s not that it’s a difficult concept. The idea that someone would “smart,” “beautiful,” “creative,” whatever, is natural. The, “show don’t tell,” failure is when traits are identified through exposition, but never actually come into play during the story.

A personal pet peeve on this subject are characters described as strategic or tactical geniuses, but when the fighting starts, they do little more than frontal assaults.

Compare that to a character like Grand Admiral Thrawn, where his strange art obsession is part of a larger practice of studying how his foes think to identify and exploit strategic and tactical blind spots. (In fairness, I think Thrawn is also described as a strategic genius in exposition, but he certainly earns that distinction through his actions.)

That example illustrates something else. If it’s important enough, sometimes it is worth showing and telling. You may detail something in exposition, and then later show it. This something that should be done very sparingly. Only when that detail vitally important for understanding the story or world, and your readers are having difficulty picking up on it.

The magic number for repetition is three. Usually as setup, reinforcement, and payoff. So, if you have something critical for your story, you establish it, come back later to remind the readers, “oh, yeah, this is a thing,” and then use it when the time comes. As with everything else, this isn’t universal. You don’t need to follow this rule, however it can be helpful. It assists your readers identify and remember important details.

Just like the rest, “show don’t tell,” is not an absolute prohibition. Sometimes you need exposition. It’s something that you probably want to minimize, but it can be right tool for the job.

The strength of exposition is that it is extremely efficient about providing information to the reader. This is a way to directly tell the reader about your world, you plot, or your characters, without any unwanted ambiguity.

The weakness of exposition is that it can be extremely dull, to the point that your readers may tune out if you overuse it. At it’s worst, it can leach the spirit out of your work, turning the drama and emotion into a dry recitation of trivia.

The advice of, “show don’t tell,” is attempting to push you away from overusing exposition. Exposition is a very useful tool to have and understand, but it’s one that should be used very carefully.

Ultimately, your goal in rewriting should be to improve the clarity. Find the things that matter, find the material that improves the work, and eject anything that drags it down.


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