As we're wrapping up our summer workshop series on how to implement everyone's favorite writing advice (Show, don't tell), I thought it would be a good time for a companion tip:
DON'T tell, then show.
We see this in many manuscripts, and it's something I catch myself doing sometimes as well, especially in earlier drafts. That's what early drafts are for, though, so it's okay--as long as you catch it later and fix it!
Telling then showing can take on several different forms. One example is stating a character's emotional state and then showing it, like this:
She was sad. Tears poured down her face.
Do you see how stating it first minimized the emotional impact? Showing someone's feelings is almost always going to create more sympathy in the reader than straight up telling them about how the character feels. By stating it first, I lost that chance for the reader to connect with my character.
Tell then show can also look like telling the reader what's causing the character to react a certain way before showing the reaction. Like this:
Mary Sue looked so much like my long-lost sister, she and Jane could have been twins. She always made me think of Jane. Her hair shimmered like pollen-dusted sunflowers in the afternoon light, just like Jane's had. They both had a healthy dusting of freckles sprinkled across their cheekbones. And Mary Sue's nose crinkled up just like Jane's had when she smiled, with those two little wrinkles over the bridge like a pause symbol.
I paused. Maybe Mary Sue was Jane?
So in this case, I started with too big a hint at the conclusion the character was going to draw. You knew where that paragraph was going from the first sentence. And that kills any tension I might have been trying for. Just like in this next, shorter example:
A black cat ran across my path. I jumped back, startled.
See? You don't feel any anxiety on behalf of the startled character if you already know what's going on. In this case, the reader finds out before the character's (imaginary) brain has had a chance to process a sudden event. If I make even a simple switch here to:
I jumped back, startled, as a black cat ran across my path
the passage immediately has more tension. And tension is good.
Telling before showing is like telling someone the punchline to a joke first. It throws off the pacing, and loses the audience's interest. It's boring. So trust your reader to be smart enough to understand your "showing" prose. They usually are. And if you're worried they won't get it, that's what beta readers, critique partners, and editors are for--helping you find the perfect balance between telling and showing.
Sometimes you need to show, and sometimes you need to tell, but you almost never need to do both.
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!