“Show don’t tell” is one of those pieces of writing advice that’s been quoted so many times the words have almost faded into the background for many writers. But useful they are. And they are also more challenging to follow than some writers may be aware of. Just pick up most bestselling books, and you’ll often find blatant examples of over-telling at the expense of the reader’s experience. Most writers start writing their novels with the intention of showing rather than telling, so why is it so hard to maintain this approach throughout an entire novel? I’ve been giving this some thought and have come up with a theory.
If you step back and think about what you’re doing as a writer, you’re creating an entire world for readers to hopefully enter and enjoy, and to do this well you need to know your characters better than anyone, including their backstories, values, motivations, and inner voices. So when you start writing your novel, this entire world of unsaid information is lying silent beneath the surface of the words you’re showing the reader. It’s a little bit like a magician on a stage who’s working hard not to show how his or her tricks work to the audience.
However, the further the story progresses, the harder it is for many writers to keep this vast world of unsaid information between them, themselves, and their dogs. So why is this? I believe there are two main reasons…
Firstly, we may forget how much more we know about the characters than the typical reader does at various points in the story, leading to unwittingly revealing a little bit too much on occasion. By doing so, we risk eroding the reader’s interest in trying to figure it out for themselves. It’s the equivalent of unintentionally revealing too much evidence in the witness stand during a court case which could go either way. We need to remember the interviewing lawyer is particularly detail-focused.
And secondly, because we’ve probably grown to love our own characters, or at least some of them, like old friends, we may feel an overwhelming desire to broadcast fascinating facts about these lovely characters to the reading world, once again committing the same cardinal sin of over-telling. Both are such easy mistakes to make, and over the course of eighty or ninety thousand words of novel, there’s more than ample opportunity for them to regularly rear their ugly heads.
So how can a writer ensure they really do show rather than tell throughout an entire novel? Well, I’m as much a work in progress on this front as the next writer, but I’m finding growing awareness of the issue to be the key to dealing with it. Whenever I find myself giving away just a little bit too much information about why a character is behaving as they are, I’ve started addressing it on the spot, usually with my old friend the delete key, who is far wiser than I am. However, no matter how focused I am during the writing process, a few over-tellings always seem to slip through the cracks. So, as a back-up strategy, I’m always on the lookout for over-telling during the editing process.
Hopefully, one day, I’ll become preprogramed to only show, although I suspect holding back the urge to over-tell will always be a natural challenge within the beautiful and challenging creative writing process.