The following originally appeared on my Defunct Blog, Battlestar Grammactica. It was intended to be a Science Fiction and writing blog, but never took off (ha!). It is reprinted here as I shut down the other site.
The Novice writer begins his story like this:
Ovid lay sprawled across the Bunk. He absently fingered the video remote without ever turning the set on.
“I’m Bored,” He said to no one in particular.
The Intermediate writer, learning the phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” writes something like this:
Ovid sprawled over the ancient, brown Geminon wool blanket he had picked up at an estate sale two years before, when he first got this berth. The frayed duct tape holding the broken seams together scratched and pinched his skin through his worn T-shirt. He absently fingered the universal remote, flipping randomly through the Colonial News feed, infomercials,and a training disk that was spinning in the RCA player for no reason.
“I’m even more bored now,” he sighed to no one in particular, “and I’m even more verbose.”
While more descriptive than the Novice writer, this doesn’t show us any more, and is just as bad. Why? Because “Show Don’t Tell” is not about description.
“Show Don’t Tell” is about Movement. It’s about characterization and dialogue and plot. We still don’t know how bored Ovid is, because the writer has just told us he’s bored without showing it:
Ovid flipped two decks of cards into the wastebasket, one at a time. sixty-two landed face up.
When Writing, watch out for characters who tell us how they’re feeling, and watch out for Poker tells that can have only one meaning. Be a little subtle, a little nuanced. avoid things like:
“I’m angry,” she said, punching the wall.
Telling often happens during exposition and narrative summary in a book. We want to skip over the boring stuff and get back to the action, so we gloss over characters emotions and just tell what’s happening. It’s the written equivalent of “Yada,Yadda.Yadda”, “Anyway” and “To Make a long story short…” The problem is, it too often makes a long story even longer. On the written page, it’s black chunks without dialogue, without changes. it sucks.
What to do about it? What you don’t want to do is sneak in lots of description of things that don’t directly bear on the plot. Show. Don’t tell is not about description.
Take a look at this passage from John W. Campbell‘s The Black Star Passes :
The passengers in the huge plane high above them gave little thought to what passed below, engrossed with their papers or books, or engaged in casual conversation. This monotonous trip was boring to most of them. It seemed a waste of time to spend six good hours in a short 3,500 mile trip. There was nothing to do, nothing to see, except a slowly passing landscape ten miles below. No details could be distinguished, and the steady low throb of the engines, the whirring of the giant propellers, the muffled roar of the air, as it rushed by, combined to form a soothing lullaby of power. It was all right for pleasure seekers and vacationists, but business men were in a hurry.
Ok, He tells us they’re bored. But then he SHOWS us why: The trip is too long, there’s noting to see, the engines are soothing. He takes us there by showing us the boredom. Look again, and you’ll see no description: What does the plane look like? What does the cabin look like? Does it matter to the plot? Would it matter to slow the exposition down to a crawl to describe the plane? You bet it would.
- Using emotion Words to describe a character:
- Tigh was Angry
- Apollo Woke from bad dreams, scared for the future
- Lack of dialogue or action
- Usually means you’ve drifted into narrative summary. Check to see if you need to expand it into a scene
- Unnecessary Description of unneeded details
- Are you trying to set the mood by describing thins that don’t need to be described?