When I was a sophomore or junior in high school, I took an online creative writing class, for which I wrote a string of subpar, melodramatic short stories that will never see the light of day. Let’s call it my “creative awkward phase.” I knew I wasn’t as good of a writer as I wanted to be—though I thought myself a great deal better than I was—and I took the class in hopes of improving my craft enough to achieve a publication credit. The frustrating thing about this particular class was that I didn’t feel like it helped me hone my skills. The professor sent back my stories with comments like “show don’t tell” (I’m sure there were others, but that’s the only one I recall), and when I asked her what she meant, she essentially repeated herself. “Well, don’t tell us something when you could show it,” she said.
Thanks, that was so helpful!
Have you had this experience? Some of my clients have, and a breakthrough on this point will really help you improve your prose. Most writers struggle in this area. Here’s the easiest way I’ve found to explain it: Focus on describing the objective, concrete things that are happening, and avoid the temptation to interpret these phenomena to readers. Imagine that you’re a photographer. You’re not going to write a caption with every photo explaining what it means. You want the photo to include enough subtle cues to tell a story or evoke an emotion on its own. You trust your audience to understand the subtext.
So, what exactly does this mean for your prose? Don’t tell us the character is angry. Instead, describe the cues that tell us she’s angry, without interpreting them. Is she clenching her jaw? Yelling? Don’t say he’s having a panic attack. Is his breathing speeding up? What about his heart rate? Does he feel nauseated? Do you want to communicate that your character is cold? Don’t tell us that she’s cold. Show us the goosebumps on her arms, and let us watch her pull her jacket more tightly around her body.