Show Not Tell – in brief
Something you will hear a lot of when submitting to editors or other writers to review, and something I often fall foul of. When describing a moment in a scene where the person of interest (the one whose POV is the focus of the chapter) is doing or feeling something, it is easy to fall into the trap of just saying;
Imran was frightened. He ran out of the room.
Some will say ‘well, that’s put simply and I get it.’ But do you really get it? Can you empathise with the character. In two seconds we have gone from Imran being frightened to leaving the room. How frightened was he to make that snap decision to leave?
We get to the point, fantastic, but we haven’t drawn the reader into our world.
In a movie scene (unless there is a narrator), we have to go by the actions on screen. And sometimes the music which heightens the emotions conveyed. We are not told that Imran is frightened, but we can see it on his face or his subtle mannerisms.
Tell Version: Imran was frightened. He ran out of the room.
Show Version: Imran’s breathing was less controlled. The room appeared smaller than it was, almost caving in around him. He stumbled back to give the wall the lightest touch with his trembling fingers. He gulped at the cobweb that dangled from the ceiling, there was no spider or not one that he could see but that did not lessen the goose bumps down his arms. He could not take this any more, he didn’t have to be in this room. The door was still open so he darted for it. Everything wobbled and if not for the frame he would have fallen onto the creaking floorboards. He gasped for breath and slammed his back onto the corridor wall; he looked back into the room and dropped to his knees, clutching his head.
My version can no doubt be bettered by others, but I hope it opens up the original sentence into a cauldron of emotions.
By stating his breathing, his fear of spiders, his moment of almost fainting and the pitiful state he conveys by clutching his head, we will understand the word ‘frightened’ a little more. In fact, the word ‘frightened’ is not present anymore.
Of course, Imran clutching his head could mean a number of things;
- He feels pitiful
- He is upset that his fear took the better of him
- He is still feeling faint
- He is nauseous
Sometimes, it is good to let the reader come into your world and make their own mind up.
And if ever Imran needs to return to that room once again, the reader will have a sense of ‘ooh’ over what may unfold…
A worthy mentioned link to Show-Not-Tell is:
It takes practice to do and I know a lot about that.