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show don't tell

Anton Chekhov once said ‘don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

It’s only been in recent years that I’ve realised how true this is. The rule of show, don’t tell is one of the most important rules to remember as a writer. And I’m afraid to say, for a long time I didn’t understand it.

When I was about 20 years of age, I wrote a novel which I thought was fabulous. I was so proud of it and wanted everyone to read it and tell me how brilliant I was. In my mind, I viewed myself as a prodigy. The next ‘big thing’ in the writing world.

Naive? Most certainly!! Now, at 31 years of age, I have learnt a lot. What was the result of that so-called ‘fabulous novel’?

Well, I decided to submit the novel to a writers forum and get feedback. I was adamant I would get a flood of followers and publishers begging to publish my work. Did any of that happen? Not a chance!

I received many comments on the forum but no one was complimenting my flawless writing. Instead they all said it was clunky, badly written and had too much telling.

It was the ‘too much telling’ that had me baffled, but I’ll get back to that. For now, I’ll finish the story.

Let’s say I was horrified! I was convinced they were jealous and wanted to be nasty. But they weren’t. In fact, they made completely valid comments. It took me a long time to get over that criticism but I did and I came out of it a much stronger and better writer.

What did I learn from it?

I learnt how to accept criticism. This is vital as a writer. You cannot afford to be offended by harsh words. You’re going to get them!

I learnt to stop thinking I was such a good writer when, quite frankly, I wasn’t. My current skills, which still need a lot of work, have come from many years of practice. I am much, much better than I was back then but I’m not perfect. Every writer has their off days!

And most importantly, I finally understood what it meant to show, not tell. Oh it took me a few years to fully understand it but I did and now I live by it.

For a long time I thought how can you ‘show’ when writing a novel? Isn’t writing all about telling a story? Well, yes but you can tell a story so that it paints a picture for the reader. When I realised that, it became that much clearer to me.

There’s nothing wrong with telling occasionally. After all, it’s impossible to show everything.

Since meeting Katie Fforde (see my previous blog Meeting the author – Katie Fforde) I have gone to her for quite a lot of advice. At one point I asked her: ‘I know how important showing and telling is but does it matter how much show and how much tell there is?’ Her answer to me was: ‘It’s important to have much more show than tell. A bit of tell is ok as it saves time but it should be mostly show.’

I was critiquing someone’s work recently and one of their sentences read ‘My eyes automatically travel to the worn out and faded sign above the heavy steel doors’. The first thing I thought, this could be ‘shown’ in such a better way. Later in the story she had a scene where a little girl left the building and got her dress stuck in the door. I suggested to the author to say something like ‘I look over at Abigail and see her dress caught in the heavy steel doors’. It’s not a big change but it’s a perfect opportunity to show what the door looks like rather than tell us.

Oh and in case you are interested, the story mentioned in my blog has been totally rewritten. It is ten times better than it once was. I stripped it apart and fleshed it out. In fact, this is a piece I hope to get published in the near future.

So now that I’ve chewed your ear off with yet another example of how pathetic I was as a young writer, I will end my blog on this note:

Please remember, showing is so important in a novel. You will be surprised how much more alive your story becomes.

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