Good Writing Advice: Show Don’t Tell = Action

I borrow today’s writing wisdom from author A.B. Westrick and her recent contribution to the “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” column of Writer’s Digest.

“Show Don’t Tell = Action. Early-on, I thought “show don’t tell” meant showing every little detail in a character’s life. It doesn’t. It means that when you’re writing a scene, you describe—physically—what your characters are doing. You don’t interpret the characters’ actions for the reader. You don’t label their emotions, such as, “Stephanie felt sad or angry or frustrated or confused.” Instead, you show what Stephanie does and let readers infer the meaning of her actions. So you might write, “Stephanie slammed her fist into the wall” or “chewed the left side of her lip until it bled” or whatever. You draw the reader into a scene using the five senses—taste, smell, sound, sight and touch.” —A.B. Westrick

That’s a long quote, but there’s a lot of good advice in it. In fact, I’d like to break it down a little and expand on several points Westrick makes in that one item.

Starting with Show, Don’t Tell: This is arguably the first rule of writing. It’s one that anyone learning the craft will encounter early, and often– from instructors, from fellow writers, and of course in How-To books. And yet, especially with starting writers, it is a guideline too often overlooked. A.B. Westrick says it beautifully above, but I would like to add that the “action” she suggests is not necessarily limited to characters. Casting objects, surroundings, and even weather into action (rather than describing these things solely with adjectives) breathes life into them and makes them more powerful. A famous example:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov

Chekhov is right. Ask yourself which sentence is better: “The moon was shining,” (“shining” being an adjective), or “Moonlight glinted on broken glass” (“glinted” being a verb: action).

In a period in which I thought I might go into advertising, I read Ogilvy on Advertising. In a strange but highly relevant connection, author David Ogilvy touted the use of motion in any commercials pertaining to food. Food in motion (hot fudge being poured over ice cream, for example) was found to make it appear more appetizing, and thus led to greater sales. Lesson in translation: choosing active images (whether for characters, objects, setting, food, etc.) over stagnant ones makes them more appealing. In short: action (verbs and nouns) over adjectives.

The other thing I want to highlight is the importance of letting readers infer things. Westrick above discusses specifically how to show emotion rather than tell it, and again she’s right on the money. But one thing I have learned is that it is not only emotions a reader must infer; it is often thought process, backstory, relationships with other characters, etc.

Some straightforward explanation may be necessary, but I think especially for first-time writers, or even experienced writers writing a first draft, there is a tendency toward introspection and over-introspection. The main character over-explains things because we, as authors, are first telling the story to ourselves. This kind of narration typically makes for dull, dry reading, and detracts from– here’s that word again– action.

That said, here’s the second tip I come away with: if introspection detracts from the movement of the story, the things being discussed are probably things the reader needs to infer (and which should therefore be demonstrated with action, not explained). That, or the passages should be pared down.

Finally, Westrick points to the five senses. An excellent reminder: all five senses, not just sight, can be applied to active vs. stagnant language. “The grass was prickly,” vs. “The grass blades bit her palms.” “The alarm was shrill,” vs. “The alarm wailed against the walls.” “The cookies smelled divine,” vs. “The smell of warm butter and chocolate wafted from the kitchen.” Show with senses!


2 responses to “Good Writing Advice: Show Don’t Tell = Action”

  1. An excellent post and I love the Chekhov quote! You give so many great examples of ways to show using the senses which reminds me of another quote I love by E.L. Doctorow: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

    1. Ooo, that’s a good one! Thanks for sharing that, Jennifer!

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