NaNoWriMo: Show, Don’t Tell

“Show, don’t tell” are possibly the most troublesome three words writers have to deal with.  And yet, if done well, those three words will make our NaNoWriMo stories resonate with our readers like nothing else can.

We’re halfway through NaNoWriMo with Seth and Scintilla Studio! Last week we helped expand your definition of “Write What You Know.”  Today, we’re unpacking “Show, don’t tell,” another adage that has plagued all of us at one point or another in our writing.

“You’re explaining too much,” my beta reader told me about a section of my first draft of Merewif. “We’ve had three explanations in the last two pages. Just let the story tell itself.”

That’s what I’m doing, I thought as I read through the notes. I’m helping the readers get a feel for the setting of my story!

But after that first rush of possessiveness faded, I could see those descriptions were just notes to myself to help me get a better sense of the setting. This is great for a draft, but those details that give us life as writers need to be presented in such a way that they don’t stop the story in its tracks. Hence, show, don’t tell.

Show, don’t tell creates problems for us writers because the actual concept is so miasmic. What exactly is “telling too much?” Who gets to decide how much telling is acceptable? Is that rule different if you’re writing in an omniscient, third-person perspective, rather than a narrow, first-person framework?

As much as I’d love to give you one, there just isn’t an easy answer to all of the questions you might have about told vs. shown prose. I can give you a version short enough for NaNoWriMo: help people figure it out for themselves.

“Show, don’t tell” means #writers should give the reader the clues they need to figure it out for themselves.Click to Tweet

One of the indescribable delights of reading fiction is the joy of discovery, that “Aha!” moment when you suddenly understand what’s going on before the characters themselves do.  So give your readers that “aha moment” with just enough clues to get them there.

Which has more impact–to write “Bob looked sad,” or to write “Bob’s shoulders slumped as he trudged across the front lawn, barely aware of the falling rain?”

Yes, it requires more work on our part, but the end result is that the readers feel what we want them to. The characters do things that they recognize, notice things that they’d notice, and draw them into our stories.

If you’re struggling with show, don’t tell, ask yourself these kinds of questions:

  • Who’s telling the story, and how much would they reasonably know about someone else’s motivations for acting?
  • Are you using dialogue to slip in bits of relevant information, or is it all showing up in giant blocks of narration?
  • Does the action stop to accommodate an important revelation, or is it made obvious by what the characters say and do?

Sometimes we don’t trust the readers to get it on their own, and we don’t want them shocked out of our lovely fiction because, as may be the case with my own NaNoWriMo project, they don’t know what a Prydax crystal is.

Sometimes readers are more clever than we credit them with being.

Obviously, there is a lot more I could say on this topic. Here’s some resources to help you get started on “show, don’t tell” in your NaNoWriMo project:

I hope that helps, and happy writing!

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