“Show, don’t tell!” is undoubtedly one of the most oft-repeated adages of writing. It’s a catchphrase of English teachers and critique groups alike, often found scrawled in red ink in the margins of manuscripts. And although it might be tempting to shrug it off as just another cliché, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a moment to ponder what it really means in the context of writing fiction.
For example, consider these two examples of a woman’s reaction to learning she didn’t get the job offer she was hoping for:
Still unemployed, after all, she realized, feeling crushed.
Still unemployed after all, she told herself, fighting the urge to fling her brand-new Marc Jacobs heels across the room.
Okay, contrived, but it was the best I could come up with as I sat on the Metro on my way to work this morning. But notice how the first example focuses on feelings, while the second focuses on actions (or okay, maybe a feeling regarding a particular action). The crushing disappointment is effectively conveyed without having to use the word “crushed” at all. You don’t have to always tell your readers how your character feels; they’d much rather figure it out based on a few strategically placed clues.
This brings me to another trap I often see writers fall into—the Trap of Excessive Modifiers. Don’t get me wrong—I love words, and I’m a frequent victim myself. The English language is a gold mine of vivid words, each with subtly different meanings and nuances, different tastes and textures. But sometimes when I’m reading, I have to stop a moment to count the number of adverbs encased in one paragraph, one sentence. It’s not uncommon to come across passages so littered with–lys that they outnumber all the other parts of speech combined. Do your future editors a favor and cull a few!
The point ultimately comes back to show, don’t tell. Strive to write vividly enough that your writing shows everything without needing all those telling modifiers.