Is “Show Don’t Tell” a Writing Rule?
"Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." – Anton Chekhov
I love that quote because it shows the reason for this writing rule, instead of telling us why it’s important.
Writing is so much more powerful when it’s rich and descriptive. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What do I mean by that? Well, if I tell you a child is “lovely,” it’s just a word. What does that really mean? Does she have golden curls? A dimple on each cheek? Does she look up at you with eyes that sparkle like the sea on a bright day?
To show means to provide those details that help us to see Emily for ourselves, and to believe that she is, in fact, a lovely child. We don’t just have to take it on faith because the author of the story said so.
Let’s look at a few more examples.
Tell: “Harry looked angry.”
Show: “Harry blinked twice, rapidly. A purple vein protruded from his left temple. And when he spoke, his voice had risen by an octave.”
Tell: “The shops were crowded.”
Show: “Shoppers jostled, moving around one another with grunts and ‘excuse me’s’ and the rustling of packages.
Tell: “The bride wore a gorgeous white gown.”
Show: “The bride’s gown was a soft white, the color of doves, with beads delicately sewn along each seam.”
Tell: “It was a beautiful spring day.”
Show: “Angela walked barefoot through the grass, feeling each soft blade. A dandelion had gone to seed, and its silken wishes floated by on warm air currents. She bent to smell the lilies, careful not to disturb a bee gathering pollen.”
Here’s the good news about writing rules: they were made to be broken. Sometimes you simply need to say that the moon was shining. And that’s okay. Writing out every observation in intricate detail can become tedious and weigh down your story. After all, we are here to read about the characters and the action, and see a drama play out.
So use the “show don’t tell” rule to guide your writing as much as possible, without letting it derail you from writing the story you were meant to tell.
@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.
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