Rule Number One – Show Don’t Tell

Rule Number One – Show Don’t Tell

This is my favourite writing rule, though not completely my own. It’s one I borrowed from the experts and I’m not giving it back. Show – don’t tell. Writing is like a painting. Every word is a brush stroke enhancing an image expressed in the unique creative genius of the artist, or writer. But, that’s not to say that a writer should impose them self on their reader.

Note the following sentence:

“Mary ran down the dark street trying to get away from the sinister man following her.”

At first glance this sentence appears to draw the reader into an exciting scene. But in fact, the reader has been tricked, treated like a child, being told what to see, how to react. Perhaps as a writer you’re insecure and therefore make the judgement call for the reader regarding the outcome of circumstances. “Oh crap, this guy is going to hurt Mary.” Here are some problems that I see with this approach.

  1. Mary is a common name which has no association with character. I see a Caucasian female of unknown ethnicity, a dilemma I refer to as ‘generic person syndrome’. Completely boring!
  2. She is ‘running down the street’. There is no indication of distress or emotion that such an encounter would evoke; an expressionless neutral act. If the reader doesn’t understand the intensity of running, the verb becomes inconsistent with escaping from a male pursuer of ‘threatening’ character. The author is ‘telling’ you this person is male and sinister. As a reader, you have been depowered to interpret the setting and characters as well as the intended plot. How rude!
  3. In a threating situation would a woman simply ‘try’ to get away? The intransitive verb fails to communicate the force of the danger. “Oh, I think I’ll try to get away or maybe not.” As a reader, you’re probably thinking, ‘why am I reading this shit?’
  4. As for setting, all we know is that it is a ‘dark street’. Setting in this case is an important element of the scene and this one is lacking in sufficient detail to help the reader envision the mood of the scene and why Mary is wanting to get away from this guy. ‘I think I’ve seen this show before’, you say before you close the book and read something more engaging like the calorie count on the can of Coke you’re drinking.

Now consider this approach.

“Monique’s breath quickened; her heart pounded as she tucked the runaway lock of hair behind her ear whipping her head back to scan the fronts of the boutique shops lining both sides of the narrow cobbled street of Rue des Fountaines, searching for the tall muscular figure with the fedora and trench coat, who’s silhouette she glimpsed at every turn.”

Would this hold a reader’s attention better than the first example?

  1. Monique is a name that has a French quality about it so it gives us a hint of her background. We know she is distressed because of her breathing and heart rate, no doubt due to the speed of her movement. We would anticipate that she is running. She has hair long enough to fall in her eyes from the action of her head movement.
  2. She “whipped her head back” and “scanned” behind her. Both are quick and somewhat frantic actions. Clearly Monique is faced with an situation that is causing her distress.
  3. The cobbled narrow street with the name ‘Rue des Fountaines, gives us the setting of an old perhaps historic section in a French village.
  4. Would you interpret a reoccurring siting of a silhouetted muscular man as menacing? This sentence allows the reader to make the choice and thereby creates the ‘hook’ that draws them to read on.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the plot requires that a piece of information be disclosed. But if you chose to tell your reader something, consider doing it as a piece of dialogue.

As she approached the constable at the intersection, her eyes were dark and wide. “I think someone is following me,” Monique said.

Trust your reader. Use just enough sensual clues to allow them to form their own emotional and visual interpretation of what is happening.

Next post, I’ll talk about another important rule. Don’t fall in love with your characters. You might need some serious therapy if you have to kill one. I bet you can’t wait for my rule number two.




5 thoughts on “Rule Number One – Show Don’t Tell

  1. Looking forward to rule two! Thanks for rule one, taking it onboard already. Smiley face.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great showing of “Show Don’t Tell,” Marianne. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] writers to be thoughtful about selection, placement, and frequency. As in my first blog about, “Show Don’t Tell” it’s primarily a matter of not imposing upon our […]


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