Distinguish between novels and bullshits: Show, don’t tell

Chiara Gamberetta is an Italian literary critic and the opinion leader in fantasy books (yes, I’m Italian, that’s why my English in not that good – I write books in Italian by the way, not in my clunky English). Her blog name http://fantasy.gamberi.org/ means “Fantasy shrimps” because she says that Italian fantasy is like Bubba Gump: everything is made of the same thing. Shrimps.

Chiara Gamberetta

Chiara Gamberetta by Guido Codecasa

Her caustic reviews are the reason why I started to read creative writing manuals. She even reviewed my first book and her comment is on the cover: “I read the novel, and I didn’t like it”. She is right, it’s a featureless fantasy, but I started to write it way before knowing all these techniques. The moral of the story is: you can’t write a good book if you don’t know the principles, and the king of the principles I learnt from Gamberi Fantasy is: Show, don’t tell.

Why should you show instead of tell? Chiara answers: because if you are watching a movie at the cinema and the director pops up saying “Michael is old”, he would be ridiculous. And you don’t want to be ridiculous, you don’t want to wake up the dreamers – the readers reading your book.

The principles

These are the key principles of this rule:

  • Everything has to look real: you can’t just say “it’s real”. It’s not enough. You have to show it. Michael’s old age depends on specific details (his difficulties in climbing the stairs, his bad sight…), not on the author saying “the old Michael” over and over again.
  • The rule helps you in picking only the details which are relevant to your story. For example, if it’s relevant that due to his age, Michael can’t see very well, then it’s useful that he wears glasses.
  • Showing details gives plausibility to your book with tangible proves, and this is the key to distinguish between novels and bullshits.

How to show instead of tell

It’s particularly easy to fall into the mistake of telling instead of showing: when you are telling what happened before the story began; when you tell what a character looks like; and when you tell what a character senses. You can understand in your book if you are telling instead of showing if you find these things:

  • If you use generic and abstract words, like “Michael is tall”. It’s better to show Michael who has to bend his head to cross the door – and showing his tallness three times in three different occasions so that it becomes real.
  • If you use adverbs: replace them with more specific verbs.
  • If you use phrases like “he tried to open the door”, “he attempted to”, “he failed to”. If you don’t want to tell, you have to show the handle which slips through sweaty fingers.
  • If you name emotions instead of conveying them by action.
  • If any character tells another what that character already knows
  • If there is the artificial beat of time with words like: before, after, then, suddenly, a few moments. This is the narrator ordering the events, but the time is actually marked by actions. If you have to create a pause, show it with actions.
  • If there are words like “almost”, “nearly”, “about”, “around”. Shy authors use these words, but our brain doesn’t distinguish between “red” and “almost red”. Is it useful for the story that your object is not red? Then show it. Same thing with words like “a sort of”, “a certain”: don’t judge what you are showing, just show it and then the reader will decide for himself.
  • In general, if you are ashamed of your readers’ opinion. “Oh my gosh, I’ve written it’s pink, people will think that I’m frivolous – let’s write it’s pretty”

What readers want

Readers don’t want to be told a story, they want to experience it, and they want to experience things that are more interesting than their daily life. Receiving information from the author doesn’t give them an experience. The key to show instead of tell is particularity: “she boiled water” tells, “She boiled water in a lidless pot so she could watch the bubbles perk and dance” shows. “He took a walk” tells, “He walked as if against an unseen wind, hoping someone would stop him” shows (examples from Stein). The reader has to see what’s happening.

If you spot a paragraph when you are telling instead of showing, you can try to come up with a simile or a metaphor that shows what you’re trying to tell. You can ask yourself if the reader is able to see what’s going on. You can check if the narrator is talking, and silence him using an action to help the reader understand what a character feels.
Showing will turn boring intrusions into characters doing things that excite the reader’s interest. Stein suggestion is to “Show the story”.

That said, there are instances when telling can be used: for example if considering the point of view it’s more natural to tell, or if you want to summarize events which are boring but necessary. But keep it at the bare minimum: if Indiana Jones escapes from Nazis jumping on a plane and in the following scene he arrives in New York, your readers won’t have problems in knowing what happened.

 

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most important rules in writing; in the previous post I’ve talked about intriguing the reader and another important rule was “characters make your story”. The next post will explain how to create fascinating characters. If you want it delivered to your inbox, just enter your email address here and you will get contents about creative writing for free:


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