Show, don’t tell

I’ve been in the edit cave since I finished Lucid Dreaming at the end of August. There’s been Isla’s Inheritance, Lucid Dreaming and now Isla’s Oath, as well as a couple of critiques for good friends. If there was a NaNoEditMo, I’d be totally caning it — even if the goal were more than the 50,000 that the NaNoWriMo folks are aiming for.

Dalek Advice

Weak prose: daleks say no

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. (I’m not doing NaNoWriMo because I’m more of a NaNoSlowMo!)

Anyway, I always knew one of the writing mantras was show, don’t tell. But it wasn’t till after I went through my wonderful editor’s feedback on Isla’s Inheritance that I truly appreciated the breadth of this phrase.

It’s a funny expression, in a way. I mean, we’re writers. By definition, everything we do is telling, not showing. But the trick is to make the reader forget that you’re telling them. 😉

I always applied it to info dumps: those really boring parts of a book where you, say, summarised a piece of a character’s history. Better to have the character discuss said history in conversation — with someone who doesn’t know about it, obviously. (Don’t commit that awful crime you see on TV where characters repeat things to each other that no real person would, just to convey meaning to the reader/watcher. Ugh.)

That’s not to say that I didn’t have any info dumps in Isla’s Inheritance, but I managed to keep them under control for the most part. Or at least I recognised them when I saw them when I edited under my own steam, and cut them out.

But where I hadn’t fully applied show, don’t tell was in describing my character’s emotions, and in things she observed in the world around her. My manuscript was full of phrases like:

I felt guilty.

I heard sirens.

I saw him flinch.

Better to say:

My stomach churned with guilt.

The wail of sirens drew closer. (Or “The sirens’ wails drew closer”, if you’re on a passive sentence crusade.)

He flinched.

They convey the same meaning, but the latter set punches it up a notch. It’s the difference between telling someone a story and giving them the full immersion experience.

Show, don’t tell is my new favourite piece of advice. I may get it tattooed on my arm. (Ok, probably not, but it’s still a good one!)

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10 Comments on “Show, don’t tell”

  1. quix689 says:

    There actually is an unofficial NaNoEdMo in March where you clock in like 50 hours of editing or something like that. Or at least there was. Haven’t checked on it in a while. Not that that would help you much now, of course!

    Great post, though! These are definitely things that I should keep in mind! 🙂

  2. Great post, Cassandra. I’m also doing “NaNoEditMo”. Lol.

  3. Karen Soutar says:

    Great piece, and I’m glad the Daleks agree with your advice. I would not want to annoy them with poor writing skills. 😉

  4. Norah says:

    I don’t think it’s quite as easy to edit the tattoo ink as it is the ink on a page!

  5. I finally found you on here my Twitter friend! The info dump can be way too long and boring, I agree, that if possible, it should be woven into the story. Hope all is well 🙂


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