The Vault, Writing Resources

The Vault #1: Show, Don’t Tell

Artwork and photography by Vicki Roberts

As a writer, it’s important for me to know my strengths and weaknesses. Studying journalism and writing for a newspaper certainly gave me a great writing foundation, but in no way prepared me for the hard work of writing fiction. Having really started to study the craft, I love this learning curve – it allows me to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.

This new weekly feature, The Vault, is all about writing resources and learning from those who have already done the hard work (No reason to reinvent the wheel). If you’re already a pro, this may not be a useful post for you – but for those of us still navigating the course, I’m starting with something simple.

Today, one of the basics: “Show, don’t tell.”

First, it’s important to say up front – this rule should not apply to your entire story. It would be awkward to read continuous metaphors or literal descriptions – these tend to be longer sentences, and it’s important to mix those with shorter sentences.

With that said, I’ve learned it takes practice to get good at this – but the rewards are worth it. My challenge is wanting it to flow organically, instead of having to work at it. But I have to work at it, and I’m learning how. When I read, I look for examples. When I write, I specifically look for places where I can show the reader my imagination instead of taking the easy way. And like I said earlier, if my early attempts aren’t the greatest, it’s okay.

Today, my daughter and I were talking about some cookies we made a few days ago, and she said, “I ate those cookies like it was my job.” See? How organic is that? I loved it. Here’s a couple I wrote yesterday for a short story I started for a contest:

“Staring absentmindedly through the window above the sink, he thought the snow had fallen as hard and pure as he’d fallen for his college sweetheart.”

“Opening the door, he fell back from the gusty air pushing in like an intruder.”

One more. Original Sentence: “The girl was small enough to fit through the fence.”

Better: “She crossed her arms at the wrists, sucked in her stomach, and twisted her torso to the left, successfully fitting through the small opening in the chain link fence.”

Perfect? No, but that’s okay…the important thing is I’m working at the craft.

Lastly, a link below to an article from one of my favorite sites, Writer’s Digest (I subscribe online and also get the magazine at home):

1 thought on “The Vault #1: Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. Excellent! Showing rather than telling is, in fact, something you get better at. You’re also right in that it isn’t something you can do constantly. It’s like fudge. It’s yummy, oooey-gooey, rich, chocolatey goodness, but if you give the reader nothing but a steady diet of it, they’re eventually going to throw up.

    Like with everything else in writing, you have to hone the skill and then choose your moments. Like your example above, describing the girl squeezing through the fence is wonderful descriptive action, but if it’s just her friend describing her to an acquaintance, he’d probably opt for ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’.

    Much like use of the passive voice over the active voice, in some cases telling is more appropriate than showing, despite all the rules we often hear to the contrary.


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