Is it morning in this picture? Or is it afternoon?
Is he flinging sand, or tossing spaghetti?
Is that his boat, or could he be just a tourist?
Hard to know...the picture doesn't tell us. But it's a great flash fiction writing challenge, yes?
Say you were to write a paragraph of this moment. How would you do it? First, let's tell you:
"The tired man scooped up a panful of water and tossed it. He stood in the sand and repeatedly filled his container, working diligently while the boat waited. Standing in the hot sun, he was hurried by the others to finish up."
It is mechanically correct, technically sound. It tells us what happened in that moment. But that feels a bit detached. Now let's try to show you:
"Sweating as the incoming tide kissed his feet, the mixture of shells and sand sloshed before his weary eyes. The day was nearly over and he had yet to find the ingredient they so desperately needed. With a final frustrated toss, however, the glowing piece finally surfaced."
Here, we don't have to say he is tired because we have described him with weary eyes and feeling frustrated. More than just telling us there was a hot sun, we have described him as sweating with the day nearly over. The second sample also shows us that it is more than just water. It is more clearly described as a mixture of shells and sand.
Without going into too much detail, we have painted a clearer picture of the moment.
Show, Don't Tell
People like to bandy the term around yet it is not an overdone topic. Everyone, at some point in their writing journey, cranks out content that is more telling than showing. Maybe we were coming back after a writing drought and were so excited to be inspired again that we just let the words flow. Maybe we were up against a deadline and had no choice but to crank it out as fast as we could. However it happened, it happened.
So, now what?
1. Give up writing
Well, this IS an option, if you feel so compelled. But your writing journey doesn't have to end up this way! Don't get to this point without reaching out. There are tons of fellow writers out there who can encourage and keep you motivated. (I'm at @aully1 on Twitter, by the way!)
2. Pay $$ for classes
Okay, this is an option for those with a budget that can afford it. There are tons out there, too many to list. It can be good for those who need the guilt of 'I paid for this, I better use it' in order to see things through, like an online class. If it fits in your schedule and budget, it might be the kick you need to polish the roughness in your writing.
3. Seek a mentor
Sometimes, with a neutral sounding board, this helps us the most. It's free, it keeps our juices flowing and, with feedback, can 'show' us what we're not 'showing' to our readers!
4. Watch for 'was'
When going over your manuscript, see if you are a lover of 'was'. In our above example, we described the man as 'was hurried'. But by showing his hurried movements, we showed his rush without stating he was hurried. Scan your manuscript. If 'was' pops up a LOT, it's a clue you might need to exchange those phrases for a bit more showing!
5. Describe more
Your cure might just be the fact that you are too vague with description of your scene and characters. It's one thing to tell us the heroine is sad, but it is another thing to show us her emotion in the tears on her face. Where are you simply stating an object or person that could use further description? Where can you be more exact with your story?
Tell, Don't Show
Yet, I'll argue both sides here and insist there are times when a writer NEEDS to tell and not show. Basically, the superior moment a book has over a reader is that it is not a movie and is not limited by ONLY showing us what is happening. Taking 'Show, Don't Tell' too much to heart can mean that you take your reader out of your characters head, and that can be damaging to the story.
Be sure to help your reader along by diving into that alpha male's head when he is having a major moment. Let us crawl inside the heroine's heart when she's having her epiphany. Don't just show us the cathartic tears on her face to show us she is having an inner epiphany, tell us what is going through her mind.
Removing too much tell can give your manuscript more of a screenplay feel than a meaty novel. Many of us picture ourselves as a character when we read, and there is nothing more detached about a story than one that never lets us dive into the plot as if we are inside the character's skin. Those we most identify with are often those who show us inner thoughts and feelings that resonate with us.
No movie can do that!
A Fine Line
So, understand that too much telling can leave the overall story feeling flat as the page it is written on. Yet, too much showing can leave us falling flat when it comes to connecting with the true hearts of the characters. It is a fine line. So don't sacrifice your unique voice to be the perfect 'Show, Don't Tell' writer. Work to find a blend that flatters your writing style best.
What have I forgotten? What am I missing? Let's keep the conversation going to work together and help each other in this matter. I'd love to hear from you!