Show vs Tell – The Truth
He pulled the delicate lace of her wedding veil up, and her face lit up. Excitement passed between them. He hesitated a moment, breathing her in, drinking in the moment. It was, after all, once in a lifetime. Then he pressed his lips to hers, and the crowd erupted in applause, though he barely heard them. All sound suddenly disappeared as she fell forward into his arms, her eyes blank, her body convulsing.
“Amy!” he cried as the best man helped lay her on the floor of the chapel.
How did that paragraph make you feel? Were you waiting for the kiss at the end? How many of those sentences were Telling vs Showing? Were you counting? Did it matter in the moment that you were reading, or did you want to know what was going to happen next?
Show Don’t Tell has been a common phrase used among writers for decades. It’s meant to encourage writers to use all their senses to describe the scene they are writing. This is especially important in fiction writing. Technical manuals aren’t meant to be the most thrilling experiences. But thriller mysteries are. And part of what makes a thriller so… well, thrilling, are the words the author chooses to use.
This is what gives each author their unique voice. An author voice is as distinctive as a fingerprint. Attempts to replicate an author’s unique voice can be convincing, but not entirely copy and paste. When Brandon Sanderson finished the Wheel of Time series for Robert Jordan, he did his best to sound like Jordan, but astute readers knew the difference.
What does this have to do with Show vs Tell?
I rather like to think of Show vs Tell as Action and Articulate instead.
Are we describing an Action, or are we Articulating something in a scene? Those two things might not sound different, but they definitely are.
The key with convince Show vs Tell is that your reader can’t tell the difference. Or at least that your reader doesn’t notice the difference. We want a sentence that shows and action to flow easily into one that simply articulates something we’re telling.
He hesitated a moment, breathing her in, drinking in the moment.
He hesitated a momentis an example of Telling.
We follow it with breathing her in, drinking in the moment. He is not actually breathing her in like she were made of air particles. It’s a figure of speech, but it’s flowery prose helps us feel the moment as much as understand or visualize what is going on.
Show Don’t Tell is a fantastic piece of advice for young and newbie writers to get them to expand their vocabulary and their communication skills. But, in everything, there should be balance and moderation.
If we Told everything, our stories would read like technical manuals.
But if we Showed everything, our stories would be so flowery, it would become difficult to follow the story at all.
Sometimes, we need a technical manual. We need a sentence or two, maybe even an entire paragraph to illustrate something very specific. And sometimes we need to Show what love feels like, what that experience is like.
Show and Tell.
Action and Articulate.
Once you find the right balance for you, that’s where you’ll find the fingerprint of your author voice.