Show and Tell


It was a critique in the wake of a flash fiction challenge that hit with thunderous force, meaning it was long overdue and something I really needed to hear.

“Show. Don’t tell.”

Of course, I knew this. Had known all along. But for some reason my poor, beleaguered synapses never fully made the connection…never saw the alternate path Show-Don’t-Tell could blaze through my own writing. In truth, I’d thought that’s what I’d been doing already. All that endless backstory, rife with exquisite detail. Surely it was evoking an elaborate picture in the reader’s mind, and isn’t that a worthy goal? Painting with words. Isn’t that what writers do?

Sort of. But, no.

Not by a long shot.

Backstory has its place. So does description. But both definitely fall on the ‘Tell’ side of things. At least the way I was doing it. I hadn’t made the jump. I hadn’t realized that the portraits writers produce owe their power to visceral as opposed to visual detail.

Which gives you more insight into the character? ‘He was a reluctant telepath,’ or ‘Clamping his hands against his skull, he tried to still the buzz-and-mutter in his brain.’

You’re free to disagree, but I’d choose door number two. That’s more the bullet-to-the-brain kind of depiction that might keep editors and agents reading.

There are endless lessons out there; endless options for a writer when it comes to the discovery and creation of individual style. There is no single, ‘right’ way. But the difference between visceral and visual detail can make a sea-change in your work. So I’m making it a personal rule-of-the-road. Putting it right up there with ‘Adverbs pave the road to Hell…’ and ‘Write every day, no matter what.’

As roads go, mine doesn’t have many rules. Too many would be stifling anyway. And it’s okay to break them as long as you know their value in the first place.

Still, the signposts along my route are increasing. They don’t feel restrictive, though.

They feel empowering.