Show don’t tell – its subtle power

You are probably aware of the writing mantra: show don’t tell.

There are loads of really helpful posts about it, often illustrated by the pitch-perfect Chekov quote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” so I won’t go too deeply into the concept here.

What I do want to explore is the subtle power of show don’t tell. It’s more than just using dialogue and action. It can be as simple as getting the verb to do the work of an adjective:

The sliding glass doors closed behind me.

The glass doors slid closed behind me.

And it can be powerful enough to show what a person or relationship is like without describing them. Let me show  you a couple of superb examples.

This first one, from Alan Hollinghurst’s Man-Booker winner, The Line of Beauty.

Showing the secretary’s sunglasses on top of her head gives an instant picture of what she’s like. And it’s so economical.

The second is from another Man-Booker winning author, Ann Enright. This is from The Green Road, (one of my all-time favourite books).

On the surface she’s describing the kitchen, but what she’s really doing is showing us not only what Hugh is like, but also how his relationship works with Hanna, the protagonist.

Ann Enright and Alan Hollinghurst have spent years honing their craft and they have the faith in their writing, and in their readers, to do more with less. But like you, they had to start somewhere.

Giving your reader space to make their own connections takes practice. If this is new to you, perhaps your first step could be to look out for similar subtle examples of showing in the books you read. (Take a snap on your phone and build yourself a collection.) As you get a feel for it, you could review a current draft to see where there are opportunities for showing rather than telling. With practice, you will start find yourself making those choices as you write.

Good luck intrepid writer.

If you want to read more about giving your reader space, here’s an earlier post.

Lu Sexton

Hello, I’m Lu Sexton. I’m an editor and writing coach. I’ve been working with writers like you since 2009 and I love it. My mission is to help you bring out the best in your writing and get you one step closer to being published.

Ask me how

There are so many positive things to say about Lu, and how she helped with my newest novel, ‘These Pictures of Us’.

It started with a structural edit (manuscript assessment) where Lu examined the vital elements of the novel like tone, characters and pacing. She delved deep and the report helped immensely in writing the next draft, which was a massive improvement from where it had started.

The copy edit itself was vital to refining the novel into the best book it could be. A copy edit like Lu’s is essential for any novel. With line-by-line examination and editing, along with positive feedback – a wonderful surprise – the copy edit was exactly what I’d hoped for.

Lu has the patience, knowledge, skills and connectedness to creative writing to help develop and refine any self-published or trade published novel.

Cannot thank you enough, Lu. Look forward to working with you again.

Tommy

Tommy Cotton

Author of 'These Pictures of Us'

Thank you so much for your work on my book! I’ve had a quick look at most of your comments and suggestions and I can really see the value of a professional copy edit. It’s precious for a writer to see the editor engage with your manuscript in such depth, and in such a supportive way. It builds a relationship of trust. I like how your comments range from word choice and syntax to narrative technique and character development.

Gilbert Van Hoeydonck

Author of 'Good Intentions'