Show, Don’t Tell.
Hello all. I’m having a tough time getting this chapter going today, so I thought I’d get the juices rolling by listening to myself talk about writing and hope someone out in the aether benefits from the bolivating.
Earlier today, I had a phone chat with another writer just getting rolling on his first novel. He’d let a couple different people look at what he’d done so far, and they came back with advice nearly every new writer hears at one point or another. “Too much exposition.” “Show, don’t tell.” Often, these phrases are thrown about without additional instruction, as though their meaning were inherent and self-evident. Well, I heard that same sage advice early in my career, and had no idea what was meant. The same happened to the gentleman I spoke to today, and I’m sure we are not outliers. In time, I’ve grown to understand this previously opaque advise, and I hope I can clear it up for everyone.
When someone says, “too much exposition,” what they’re trying to tell you is your story reads like a textbook or a travel guide, not a novel. As the author, you are taking the reader out of the story. In a sense, this is natural. We all spend a lot of time telling stories about where we’ve been and what we’ve done, often in exhaustive detail. But when you do that in fiction, it disrupts the flow of the story and pulls your reader away from the very place you want them to live in for a while. Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re writing a fantasy novel and want to introduce a castle. The way most of us would explain a castle we’ve seen to another person would go something like this:
The castle was built in 1547 of granite chiseled out of a quarry ten miles down river, then floated to the site on temporary reed rafts. Its walls were over six feet thick at their stoutest, and the battlements rise almost seventy feet above the ground. In 1583, it withstood a six-month long siege from the forces of the Duke of Cromwell…
Still awake? See how I just told you everything I thought you should know? I sounded like a hung-over tour-guide working a minimum wage summer job, didn’t I? That’s exposition. Avoid it at all costs. But what’s the solution, you ask? That’s where the showing comes in. Instead of droning on and on about this new castle, what you want as an author is to let your characters, and therefore your readers, explore and learn about it for themselves naturally. You can do that either through dialogue between characters, or better yet, observations made directly from your Point of View character. Here’s what that might look like:
Claire walked up the rutted path towards the mouth of the immense castle. As she passed over the drawbridge, she marveled at the sheer mass of the structure. Its battlements reached for the clouds, nearly three times as tall as the simple, two-story houses in her village, maybe taller. Its stones were old and weathered after centuries spent standing up to the elements, but they had lost none of their strength. Indeed, the whole castle had been battle-tested. Here and there, Claire spotted pockmarks and scorching on its walls, testament to the infamous siege it had survived under the notorious Duke of Cromwell. Claire smirked a little as she entered the portcullis. The evil Duke never got the view of the courtyard she was about to enjoy. As she passed through the great stone archway, she couldn’t help but hold her arms out as far as they would go. The wall was thicker than her arm-span, and she was easily the tallest girl in her county. On impulse, she scratched at the rock of the entryway with a fingernail. To her surprise, no bits of sand came free. The castles and garrison forts out in the provinces were all made of wood or limestone. But this, it was all solid granite. No wonder it had passed the test of time. At the apex of the archway, she could just make out an inscription in the capstone. They read: Laid Down in the Year of Our Lord 1547.
See how much better that reads? You are learning about the castle right alongside Claire as she explores it for herself. Not only does the castle seem like a real, living place, but you learn more about Claire in the process, making her a more convincing character at the same time. This is showing. Yes, it took a little longer, but that’s not a bad thing. It ate up some wordcount, and managed to share all of the same information contained in the first example while being a more compelling read.
I hope that helps. I’m going to go write something now. You should too.