Any writer who hasn’t received at least one form letter (or email) of rejection that says something to the effect of, “Nice piece, but you have to ‘show, don’t tell’ your story,” hasn’t made it out of the slush pile yet. Most of us received plenty of rejection letters like this when we first started submitting to publishers.
But what does this mysterious “show don’t tell?” look like? Aren’t writers supposed to “tell” their story?
After all, some of the most famous writings ever published started like ~
Once upon a time…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
No, no, no!
That type of writing may have topped the bestseller lists in days gone by but now we have readers who are used to descriptive book jacket blurbs, fast-moving trailers, larger-than-life characters, and scenes bursting with raw emotion. So let’s get right to the point. The best way to explain the difference between “telling” a story and “showing” a story is by example, so without a string of unnecessary explanation, let’s launch right into an example I call “Here’s Johnny!”
Johnny was so in love with Margaret he thought his heart would break but he knew he didn’t dare tell her. He was far too shy and he feared rejection. Some nights he’d stare at her picture for hours and cry.
There’s really nothing wrong with that paragraph. The grammar’s OK and it relays a lot of information. It tells us Johnny’s in love with Margaret, but he can’t let her know it because he’s afraid she’ll reject him. It also tells us he has a photograph of her that he looks at and cries.
But how much empathy does that paragraph give us for Johnny? I know I’d like to slap the crap out of him and tell him to get some backbone. I don’t like crybabies so I probably wouldn’t even finish reading the whole graph, let alone consider buying a book, or even a magazine story about him.
How then could we convey this same information in a way to make us root for Johnny – to make us want him to win?
TAKE TWO: Show it in a scene
Johnny lay face down on the bed. I never knew red dye tasted like this, he thought. He’d cried so long the cheap bedspread was soaked under his face and some of the dye had rubbed off on his lips. “Margaret. Margaret,” he whispered again and again, holding the Facebook photograph of her he’d printed out close to his chest. Just yesterday, his best friend had made fun of him for making her photo the menu background for his cell phone. Tears rolled down his face onto the photograph. “Oh Margaret, I love you so.” He swallowed hard and felt the lump in his throat descend to his chest. His hands shook. His lips trembled.
I can’t tell her. I can’t risk opening my heart to her and having her grind it on the ground with her heel, like all the others. Like Jenna, and Marie, and Mother. Oh God, not even Mother returned my love!
This time we didn’t say “brokenhearted” or “feared rejection.” We showed it by Johnny’s actions in a creative scene just like a moving picture would.
That in a nutshell, is the short version of “Show Don’t Tell.”