Classic advice to beginning fiction writers: Show, Don’t Tell. I taught several sessions to teachers last week and they all nodded. Great advice. But how do you DO that in practical terms? How do you teach students to Show, Don’t Tell?
Show, Don’t Tell: Why?
In the old days of storytelling, it was fine to just say something like this:
The cat was cuddly.
But in today’s fiction, we usually want that fleshed out more. Novels and picture books try to put readers in the immediate situation. Generic or cliched descriptions like that give only a surface experience, rather than the sensation of being in a situation. Of course, sometimes that statement is fine, depending on how much attention you want to give the cat and the fact that it is cuddly. But if the cat is important and its tendency to cuddle even more important, you must do better.
Verbs and Nouns
One hint is to do away with as many “to be” verbs as possible. In our sample sentence the “was” indicates a state of being; instead, we want action.
The calico cat purred in the hammock, snuggled on the couch, and when I slept, she curled on my chest.
My general rule is no modifiers UNTIL I have the most exact verb possible. Get rid of wimpy -ly adverbs, in favor of a precise verb.
The information that we, as humans, receive from our senses can be used to revitalize tired prose. What you see, hear, taste, smell and touch (temperature, texture and kinesthetic) should be included whenever possible. Visual details are the easiest and most common to add. Fine. Use them. But try to add at least one or two other senses to your prose.
The calico cat purred in the hammock, snuggled warm on the couch, and when I slept, she curled on my chest and her soft fur tickled my chin.
Finally, you can often turn a flat narrative into dialogue, thus bringing to life the situation. The problem here is to make the dialogue dynamic. You don’t want to go into long monologues when snippets will do.
I dangled my hand. “Come.” Obedient, the calico cat leapt into the hammock and settled down to purr. Later, when I watch TV, she snuggled warm against my thigh. And when I slept, she curled on my chest. “Quit tickling,” I murmured and pushed her away from my chin. I’d never had another cat who liked to snuggle as much as this calico.
As you can see, the problem with Show, Don’t Tell is that it adds length to a story. You must weigh the importance of the cat and decide if it is worth the extra space.