Writing Advice: Show, Don’t Tell

One of the most cited pieces of writing advice I’ve heard is to “Show, Don’t Tell”.  It is also one of the most difficult things to notice in one’s own writing, especially for somebody just getting into writing.  It’s certainly not something that  I was good at spotting in my own writing until recently working with my critique group and looking at the writings of others.

I think one of the reasons “Show, Don’t Tell” is so difficult for new writers is that those three words together on their own don’t do a very good job of explaining what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. My eyes glaze over when I read that phrase, to be honest, and it makes me want to stop writing and just read something instead. But the advice is good, just the packaging is lacking.

It comes down to reader engagement. You want your reader to be INSIDE the story and not feel like they are being told a story (like one is read a book when they are a kid). So, instead of:

The phone rang and Stacy picked it up. It was the boss. She told Stacy the world is ending and Stacy was the only one who could save mankind. Stacy replied that she was kind’ve busy but maybe she could save the Earth on Friday. Stacy hung up the phone and continued the New York Times crossword puzzle.

How about this:

Stacy’s pocket buzzed and she put down her pencil, cursing the interruption. It was the Boss. Brilliant.

“What is it, I’m busy here,” Stacy said, rolling her eyes because she could.

“Oh really? The end of the world again? Get Bill to take care of it. I’m busy here, you know.”

Stacy stared at her chipped nails, bitten to the nub. She  needed a manicure, like yesterday.

“I’m the only one? Really? Look, you get me a team together, somebody competent this time and maybe I’ll squeeze you in on Friday, okay?”

Pressing End Call, she continued on Monday’s edition of the Times’ crossword puzzle.

Both tell the story, right? But don’t you feel like you are right there in the thick of things with the second version? Can’t you feel the contempt for the Boss that Stacy feels? Do you have just a little more idea of how important Stacy is that she can talk to her boss in this way?

So that’s it really. Put us there in your story. Don’t tell us something happened. Describe it in real-time.